THE 'M' WORD
By Melissa Dubie
The “M” word is masturbation. For everyone involved,
it can be an uncomfortable topic when discussed at case conferences,
parent meetings, or within one’s own family. The fact is that when
each of us were infants, we spent time discovering our bodies, including
our toes, feet, fingers, and yes even our vagina or penis. As boys
and girls reach puberty, their sex hormones become more active.
Many adolescents begin to have even more pleasurable and excited
feelings about their own bodies and may be more attracted to and
interested in other people’s bodies (Harris, 1994).
Even though the feelings are hard to describe,
they are normal feelings. They happen at different times and in
different ways for both boys and girls. Actually, if individuals
have not begun masturbating before adolescence, they likely will
begin their hormonal and physical changes when puberty starts. Many
males begin masturbating between ages 13 and 15, whereas the onset
among females occurs more gradually (Strong, et al., 2005).
While these statistics are for neuro-typical adolescents,
they also apply to individuals on the autism spectrum. The sexual
feelings and needs of individuals on the autism spectrum are no
different than the rest of the population. People of all ages masturbate
including children, teenagers, married and unmarried adults, and
the elderly because it “feels good” (Gravelle, 1998).
Myths and Facts
How people view masturbation is an issue that
needs to be addressed. Years ago, it was felt that masturbating
would cause a person to go blind or insane, or cause pimples. This
is not true. Others believed that if one ate graham crackers and
Kellogg’s Corn Flakes (Strong, et al., 2005), a person could be
“cured” of masturbating. This is a myth as well. Masturbation is
not physically harmful unless abusive means are used. Another myth
is that masturbating will ruin a person for their first normal sexual
relationship. Actually enjoying masturbation may help prepare a
person for sex with another person. When one explores their own
body there is an opportunity to learn what feels best. Later, you
will be in a better position to let your sexual partner know the
things that you like. Another fact is that masturbation never results
in a pregnancy, or in getting or passing on infections.
Adolescents with autism
With neuro-typical adolescents, parents usually
don’t need to address the issue of masturbation because their son
or daughter is able to understand the social cues associated with
it from friends and parents. They understand that it is to be done
in a private place, and to not discuss or do it in a public area.
However, individuals on the autism spectrum may not be embarrassed
about talking about their bodies. They may be unaware of the reactions
of others or may continue to discuss the topic despite the negative
attention of others.
These individuals may have naturally started to
fondle themselves. When they realize how good it feels, they may
do it more. Their families may not be sure how to address the masturbation
because their other children just “figured it out” for themselves.
Other times, adults mistakenly believe that masturbation is a behavior
a child will soon tire of and stop on his or her own (Wrobel, 2003).
This is usually not the case. When a child is masturbating even
occasionally in public, it needs to be addressed by his or her teachers
and parents immediately.
How to React
Is masturbation morally wrong? Parents must talk
among themselves about their beliefs, how they will react, and how
they will teach their child about masturbation. Within the discussion,
parents must consider their adolescents ability to understand this
concept (e.g., cognitive abilities, ability to process information).
One must also be careful about how your adolescent thinks you perceive
him or her touching their genitals. For example, if you view it
as “nasty or dirty” and touching oneself is strictly forbidden,
then your adolescent may refuse to have a medical physician touch
their penis or vagina during an exam because they interpret the
rule literally. Or your child may conceal their masturbatory play
from you, and start masturbating in inappropriate places (e.g.,
playground, school bus, locker room, hallway, community park).
This could lead to more serious problems. Knowing
your child, and demonstrating maturity and calm understanding is
essential. For example, remain calm and do not scream when catching
your son or daughter masturbating. Rather than simply telling your
son or daughter to stop the behavior, teachers and parents should
discuss why it is inappropriate to do so in public. It is important
to teach one’s adolescent with autism strategies when, where, and
how to be safe in regards to masturbation.
Questions and Answers
Parents, teachers, and individuals on the autism
spectrum have called the Indiana Resource Center for Autism asking
many questions related to masturbation. There isn’t one prescribed
answer to all of the specific scenarios, but rather resources and
ideas to explore. Here are a few of the scenarios:
My son is masturbating in the living room when
he watches his favorite television show, how do I handle this situation?
Teach rules and the boundaries about privacy with
the use of social stories, pictures, and videos. Compare masturbating
to another experience that he does by himself like taking a shower
or using the restroom. Teach him that one should only touch oneself
in a “private” area. It is imperative to teach private and public
behaviors when children are young. Calgary Health Program has a
useful lesson plan on their website (www.teachingsexuality.ca) to
teach the terms public and private.
Private should be described as one’s bedroom only. Hopefully, the
child has private time alone in his/her room. It is highly recommended
that an individual not be taught that the bathroom is an appropriate
place, unless a door can be closed (no stalls). For students that
can’t generalize, one may start to masturbate in a bathroom with
stalls at school. This can open a child up to ridicule from other
students in the school if one is discovered masturbating in the
boys or girls bathroom. Parents and teachers must teach the child
the appropriate times and places to masturbate.
Should a student be allowed to masturbate at
school or on the bus?
No. At school and on the bus are public places.
This rule needs to be strict. A student on the autism spectrum could
get into trouble for sexual harassment charges from his peers or
be accused of indecent exposure. Both of these situations could
lead to being arrested. Each school has a policy regarding sexual
harassment. Contact your local school district for a copy of this
A girl in my class is rubbing her genitals against
the legs of her desk, what do I do about this?
One has to analyze the situation to understand
the antecedents of the behavior and the function of her masturbation
(e.g., what reward is she getting out it). A functional behavior
assessment needs to be completed in order to know how to change
this behavior. The student could be rubbing their genitals against
the desk because there is too much wait time in a transition, the
work could be too easy, or she may find this behavior calming in
a stimulating environment. There are many reasons for this behavior.
Once the team discovers why she is masturbating, a replacement behavior
can be taught to change the situation.
Frequently it seems that the group working with the individual
who is masturbating is uncomfortable with the situation. One must
take a step back from the situation, so that it is not so personal.
How one works with a student does not reflect on one’s own sexuality
issues, but it does reflect on how the lessons of life are being
taught. Let’s be sure to be positive and supportive of this tender
How do I teach my son who has been identified
with a moderate disability about having erections?
Use the same strategies that have been working
to teach other concepts like when to brush your hair or take off
your clothes. Below are reference ideas or strategies to use:
Mary Wrobel’s book listed in the reference is an excellent resource
that includes facts about masturbation, short stories, and visual
strategies as well. Other books available on this reference list
can also be used, but should be adapted to meet the child’s cognitive
Create a visual system of explaining the process. Use photographs
of a person or access pictures from Mayer Johnson (http://www.mayer-johnson.com/).
Show factual slides or videos from materials written by James Stanfield.
These are highlighted below in the reference list.
Develop a routine and schedule at home when he
or she can masturbate in their own room.
I’m an adult with autism, I am having troubles understanding how
I can reach an orgasm?
There are several videos in our library at CeDIR (Center for Disability
Information & Referral) that show how to masturbate in the privacy
of one’s room alone. See the video list by Dave Hingsburger in the
Go to your local bookstore to quietly ask the person at the help
desk about where the section on adult sexuality is located so that
you can look at the numerous books to decide which one(s) will address
your own questions.
In closing, the topic of masturbation must be discussed in private
with individuals on the spectrum in order to help him or her develop
an awareness of their own bodies, an understanding of when and where
to do this, and to develop positive loving relationships with oneself
or others in their adult lives.
Brekke, B. (1988). Sexuality education for persons
with severe developmental disabilities [slide]. Santa Barbara, CA:
James Stanfield & Co.
Cole, J. (1988). Asking about sex and growing up: A question and
answer book for boys and girls. New York, NY: Beech Tree Books.
Gordon, S. & Gordon, J. (2000). Raising a
child responsibly in a sexually permissive world. Avon, MA: Adams
Gravelle, K., Castro, N., & Castro, C. (1998).
What’s going on down there?: Answers to questions boys find hard
to ask. United States of America: Walker Publishing Company.
Harris, R.H. (1994). It’s perfectly normal: Changing
bodies, growing up, sex and sexual health. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick
Hingsburger, D. (1998). Hand made love: A guide
for teaching male masturbation [video]. Richmond Hill, Ontario:
Diverse City Press Inc.
Hingsburger, D. (1998). Under cover dick: A guide
for teaching about condom use through video and understanding [video].
Richmond Hill, Ontario: Diverse City Press Inc.
Hingsburger, D. (2003). Finger tips: A guide for
teaching about female masturbation [video]. Richmond Hill, Ontario:
Diverse City Press Inc.
Kempton, W. (1993). Socialization and sexuality:
A comprehensive training guide for professionals helping people
with disabilities that hinder learning. Chapter 8, pp. 151-162.
Aston, PA: Conner Printing, Inc.
Lawson, W. (2005). Sex, sexuality and the autism
spectrum. Philadelphia, PA: Jessica Kingsley Publishing.
Madaras, L. & Madaras, A. (2000). The “what’s
happening to my body?”: Book for boys. New York, NY: New Market
Madaras, L. & Madaras, A. (2000). The “what’s
happening to my body?”: Book for girls. New York, NY: New Market
Newport, J., & Newport, M. (2002). Autism/asperger’s
& sexuality: Puberty and beyond. Arlington, TX: Future Horizons.
Parent’s sex education link: http://www.advocatesforyouth.org/.
Strong, B., DeVault, C., Sayad, B.W., and Yarber,
W.L. (2005). Human sexuality: Diversity in contemporary America.
Fifth edition. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.
Wrobel, M. (2003). Taking care of myself: A hygiene,
puberty and personal curriculum for young People with autism. Arlington,
TX: Future Horizons Inc.
Reproduction kindly allowed by
Indiana Resource Center Autism. Visit their site for more useful
Click here for the full range of Asperger's
and autism fact sheets and personal stories at www.autism-help.org