Autism and Asperger Articles, Bill Stillman, Award-Winning Author

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Demystifying Autism From The Inside Out

Autism and the New Sexual Victimization

by William Stillman

Sexual victimization of our children is a national concern that shows no signs of abating. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children suggests that this crisis is “overwhelming in magnitude yet largely unrecognized and underreported.” A 1993 national incidence study reflected that 300,200 children were sexually abused in just that year, and, according to the National Center for Juvenile Justice, nearly 70 percent of all sexual assaults (including those against adults) occur to children ages seventeen and under. Perhaps such prevalence in the general population reflects in our permissiveness for pornography (mobile phone porn alone borders on $1 billion in worldwide revenue) and a decay of moral values. There is now an estimated 600,000 registered sex offenders who have perpetrated sexual acts against children with an additional 150,000 “lost in the system.” Documented, too, are the tragic outcomes of those victims; children and teens that often turn to drugs, alcohol, promiscuity or who become, themselves, abusers.

When we contrast these unpleasant and sobering statistics with the increasing numbers of very young children being diagnosed with autism in this country (1 in 150 and counting), it is imperative that we apply the prevalence for childhood sexual assaults to include our young people on the autism spectrum—they make the perfect victims because many of them can’t speak. And when you can’t speak, you can’t tell. Others may manifest extreme reactions to physical and emotional torment that gets attributed to stereotypical autistic behaviors. Further disservice is rendered when we overlook very real psychological symptoms—not behaviors—of acute anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder because “that’s just autism.” Drugs, alcohol and promiscuity aren’t likely options for young people with autism because of their physical and social challenges but, regardless of clinical labels, let us remember that we are talking about children; children whose expression of the unspeakable has got to come out in some way.

In my work as an autism consultant who counsels parents and professionals, I’m beginning to distinguish what others may chalk up to bad behavior as legitimate cries for help. Outrageous outpourings of aggression need to be correctly interpreted, not as extreme behavioral manifestations, but as attempts to communicate. For example, I have been involved in several situations, nearly identical, in which the everyday conduct of young girls with autism has deteriorated in alarming ways yet no one seemed to be connecting the dots, again, likely because of the autism label and the myth-understanding that such conduct is part and parcel of it.

In these circumstances the young girls all became agitated, withdrawn and frequently incontinent of urine. In fact, urinary tract infections and increased (or renewed) bed-wetting became the norm. This all surfaced in children who, previously, were toilet trained. Fecal incontinence became commonplace as well; one little girl actually smeared her own bowel movements around the doorframe of her bedroom. But none of what I’ve recounted here has any clinical connection to symptoms of autism. And while I was never in a position to prove anything, every incident reported to me coincided with mom’s new live-in boyfriend, stepbrother or uncle. What these little girls were doing (none of whom could talk) was a strength! They were all in survival mode doing the best they could with what was at their disposal. Guess what, if you stink yourself up badly enough with urine and feces you make yourself sexually undesirable, in essence, conveying “stay away and keep your distance.” I applaud the brilliance of these intelligent young girls with autism for endeavoring self-preservation independent of any adult validation or support.

A friend of mine is a teenage boy with autism who does not speak and is served by an agency in his own home in the community. During a recent telephone consultation with his professional caregivers, I was informed that a male staff person had been let go for making sexually suggestive remarks to the (largely) twenty-something female staff. Okay, that sort of thing occurs in any workplace, I thought, and we moved on. Of greatest concern to the caregivers, though, was that there was a spike in the boy’s sexual acting out: masturbating and inappropriate touching. Could it be that he was mimicking the male staff person who had been terminated, they wondered? Possibly, but in exploring things further let’s remember that the young man with autism is also nineteen. Labels aside, he is a sexual being at the height of his adolescence.

When people with autism don’t speak, it becomes easy to believe they are not fully competent, or to perceive them as perpetual children who function at a much lower level when compared with their chronological age. But, equipped with over two decades of intimate knowledge about the inner-workings of autistic functioning, I know differently. The correct manner in which to interpret autism is in the same way that we’d assume the intelligence of someone recovering from stroke, or compromised with cerebral palsy—a fully capable human being dwells within a fractured shell. When I discovered that some of my friend’s twenty-something female staff wore shorts and T-shirts to work, were accustomed to hugging and kissing him goodnight when they tucked him in, and, in one instance, had rubbed his lower belly, I openly asked how their conduct was any different from the male staff about whom they had complained until he was dismissed. This is not acceptable. My friend is a young adult, not a child; and the job of caretaking a person with autism is not glorified babysitting. In summary, his staff were crying wolf because the precedent they set had backfired.

We have much to learn about autism, relationships, and social safeguards. This must include educating and protecting children and adults with autism against sexual abuse. When we begin from the premise of presuming the intellect of the person within, we may acknowledge that developmental diagnoses should not color, nor guide, the withholding of information to which potential victims are entitled. Instead, we must empower our most sensitive citizens with the same knowledge and understanding as we would to keep all our children safe. Knowledge is power and, while we may be unable to protect every child with autism from sexual harm, I have to trust that those same kids will continue to do the best they can to endure despite the misperceptions of others. In fact, I’m counting on it.

©2009, William Stillman (

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