Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Teaching an autistic child about consent

Lately I've read a lot, and I mean a lot, of comments about rape and rape culture and consent and victim blaming.  One comment that has stayed with me was something like, "I'm not worried about my sons, because I have taught them about consent."

And it bothered me.  I mean, I'm sure we would like to believe that all rapists just haven't been taught about consent.  Maybe they picked up toxic attitudes toward women from their parents, or maybe no one ever talked to them about it at all.  But it's possible that the parents taught them about consent and they ignored the lesson.  People have free will.

Still, it's definitely something I'm trying to teach my kids about all the same.  Certainly it's a conversation we need to have, and more than once.

But autistic children are an extra challenge.  Normally I completely reject defenses of rapists that include stuff like "maybe he just couldn't tell she didn't want that!" because most of us have the basic ability to read other people better than that.  But autistic people struggle.  I want to communicate consent without terrifying my kid to the point that he'll never approach someone he's attracted to!

Here are a couple of reasons why autistic people might struggle with consent:

  • Flirtation and romance often are heavy on subtext -- and subtext is a second language for them.
  • They learn a lot of social skills from TV, where they can watch a scene over and over and learn how people act -- but Hollywood has creeptastic ideas about what women want.  I do not want my son to treat women the way Han Solo or James Bond does.
  • They may internalize an idea that "asking permission is unromantic" because it rarely happens that way in fiction -- but asking permission with words is sometimes the only way they can get a clear answer.
  • They internalize rules that are clear and spelled out verbally, but very often the rules we teach our children ("don't have sex before marriage," for instance) don't include consent, because we think it goes without saying.  With autistic children, nothing ever goes without saying.  There's an autistic guy I've talked to online before who explained that all non-procreative sex is rape, while all procreative sex within marriage is okay.  Why?  Well, because the Catholic Church says sex must be within marriage and procreative, but it doesn't talk a lot about consent, so he just sort of ... glossed over that part.
  • People often fail to obtain consent from autistic children.  Autistic children are often put through therapy where they are forced to hug, touch, or make eye contact when they are uncomfortable.  I read an autistic person's account of how she got in trouble for taking off people's headphones to talk to them.  Her complaint was that her teachers and parents always yanked off her headphones without asking, so she thought this was an okay thing to do.  Autistic people long for consistent rules -- they will treat others the way we treat them.

So how do we overcome all this?  How do we teach our children not to rape, to recognize when they are raped or assaulted, and at the same time not make them afraid of relationships?

Spoiler: I don't know for sure.  My kids are young still, and none of even them know yet where babies come from.  When we get to that point, I'm almost certainly going to need to enlist some help.  But we're laying the foundations now, and I can tell you what we're doing.

First lesson: Your body is yours.

I'm trying to respect their own wishes.  This isn't even possible all the time, because I do have to wipe their butts (yes, all four of their butts are still in need of my skills from time to time, moan moan) and make them get in the car.  But I try to let them have some choice in any matter involving them.  You know, blue shirt or green shirt, get in the car now or in two minutes, that sort of thing.  That paralyzed Marko when he was two and three years old, but now it makes a big difference.

I don't always ask Marko before hugging him, because he usually does like it, but sometimes I doublecheck to be sure.  I want him to know he can always say no.  That's doubly true with people outside the family, whom he usually does not want to interact with at all.  I have started pushing him more to say hello or look at people when we meet ("so that they know we like them and are happy to see them") but touching is always optional.

Second lesson: Not everyone likes the same things.

I try not to appeal to what is "reasonable" or "the only way" when talking to Marko.  I don't say, "That food is delicious," when he's saying he hates it, I simply say, "I know you don't like it, but you finish you will get dessert."  (Yes, I used to be strongly against this approach, but as he's severely underweight, we have to do it this way.)  I don't say, "It's obnoxious to be singing all the time," although it totally is, but instead, "I am tired of all this singing and would like some quiet, could you either stop or go somewhere else?"  My point here is to try to get him to understand subjectivity, that there's no wrong or right answer sometimes.  What one person loves, another hates.

Marko learned not to hit (most of the time) by about four years old, but he's learned a whole arsenal of other tricks.  He'll lean on you really hard, or hug you too tight, or make a loud noise in your ear -- anything to show he's mad without breaking a rule.  So we've talked about how the real rule is not to touch anyone in a way they don't like, and the kindest thing is to do things they do like.  He's actually started explaining this to me, so I know we're getting somewhere.  He knows that the way you show kindness to Miriam is to share toys and let her join in, while the way to show kindness to Michael is to let him have some control of the game they are play together.  And tickling, hugging, or kissing a child who isn't liking it is treated the same as hitting -- he must apologize if it's by accident, and have a time-out if it's on purpose or he refuses to apologize.  (I never made him apologize before about six years old, because he simply didn't get it.  Now he does, but it's still a bit of a struggle.)

In short, there is no rule that will tell you what behavior is always appropriate.  Appropriate behavior must be behavior both people are okay with.

Lesson three: Nonverbal communication counts.

Marko's younger siblings don't always communicate clearly, which makes them a great object lesson about unspoken consent and refusal.  For instance, if he's playing with the baby, I point out the signs that show that she is having fun, and the signs that she is not.  "She's pulling away, I don't think she wants that hug," versus "Look at her laughing! She loves that!  If she could talk, she'd be asking for another tickle!"

Miriam can talk, but she doesn't always remember to, so we have the same conversation.  "Look at Miriam's face.  See how she is shrieking at you?  Do you know what it is she didn't like about what just happened?  Let's try asking her."

Lesson four: Consent can be withdrawn at any time.

Marko gets upset sometimes when the rules of the game are changed on him.  He just figured out Mama likes hugs, how can she stop wanting hugs after the 43rd consecutive hug?  But that doesn't obligate me to play along.  I can simply say, "You know, normally I love hugs, but I am done with them for awhile.  Come back later."

Likewise, Marko is a lot more willing to play games that push his limits a little (like John's scary monster game) if he knows that when he says he's done, it stops.

Lesson five: TV is not reality.

At this point, most of the TV the kids watch is designed for them and has lessons appropriate for them.  But I still pause from time to time to point out stuff.  "When Rainbow Dash says, 'Why are saying I'm angry? I'm not upset!  And I am NOT ANGRY!' do you think she is telling the truth?  Why do you think she's pretending she's not angry when she is?"

As they get older, I'm going to be riding the pause button a lot harder.  Marko needs to be explicitly told what is like real life and what is only in shows.  He needs to know that when male characters kiss and grab their female friends, in real life, the women might not like that.  We can talk about how you might know that someone wants that (for instance, they said so).

This will make me the obnoxious mom, but you gotta do what you gotta do.  I'm probably going to encourage him to watch sitcoms and other "girl" shows with me, because they actually teach a lot about real social situations in a way that Marko's favorite genre (fantasy) usually does not.

So that's what I've got so far.  Do you have any more ideas?  What are good ways to help autistic children practice reading other people's wishes and standing up for their own?


MrRoivas said...

All of these seem real solid. Cool.

Anonymous said...

I really like these.

When I was little, my dad would tickle us. BUT. Only when we said the special Tickle Word: "Oost." The second we said the magic UN-tickle word, "Toast," he stopped. Instantly. Of course the problem was to get the word out of our mouths while giggling uncontrollably, but still, if we gasped out "Toast," we were safe from further tickles unless we said "Oost" again. I love that memory.

The Sojourner said...

J has recently figured out that you can/should hug people when they're upset. (His favorite thing when he's upset is a big squeezy hug with lots of deep pressure.) But now I have to figure out how to explain that stealing a toy from his sister and then pushing her down and squeezing her like a python is not in fact an effective way to increase her net happiness!

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