Growing up and developing socio-sexual skills and knowledge can be difficult for any adolescent or young adult, but when the individual has Asperger Syndrome (AS), it is not only challenging, but also potentially dangerous and life altering if missteps are made. The very characteristics of AS create a vulnerability that most others do not experience and the lack of understanding that the legal system and the public have for this condition further escalates the potential danger and consequences. Most socio-sexual dangers arise from a delayed or different social maturity and generally fall into two categories: those associated with others taking advantage of their social naïveté, and others misunderstanding them and attributing motives they do not have. Unfortunately, there can be personal and financial ramifications when others take advantage of social naïveté and personal and legal ramifications when others misinterpret behaviors the individual exhibits. The purpose of this article is to forewarn young men and women and their families so that honest conversations can be had before undoable circumstances arise. Prevention of these kinds of problems depends directly on understanding how they can occur and getting a person with AS an education about these devastating, real-world dangers.
There are many underlying skills and bases of knowledge that are important to understanding the subtle, and not so subtle, forms of communication around issues of developing sexuality. All too often, adolescents with AS who are academically successful do not receive the additional support they need to develop the soft skills necessary for effective social communication. In addition, if sex education was presented before the young person was able to process the information because of a much younger maturity level, it is usually never revisited again and there can be a startling lack of knowledge.
Please take the time to read about each potential danger, the skills needed to avoid it, and what to do to gain those skills.
Harassment and Stalking
Harassment is doing or saying something that another person finds fear inducing or threatening. It is sexual harassment if there is any sexual undertone, such as invading personal space, displaying sexually explicit material and making indecent demands or requests for sexual contact.
Stalking is related to harassment in that it lies in the eye of the beholder as to what constitutes this behavior. If there is any unwelcome nature to the behavior, it may seem like stalking even if the young man or woman did not have that intent. The legal standard in New York State, for example, is that if the person accused of stalking knows or should know that his or her conduct is unwanted and fear inducing, it is stalking.
Stalking includes the following:
- waiting for
- showing up uninvited
- non-consensual calling, messaging, or emailing
In order to understand the potential crimes of harassment and stalking, a person needs to:
- have good theory of mind skills (understanding others’ perspectives)
- possess empathic understanding of others
- appear socially appropriate
- appreciate social subtlety
- understand how they appear to others
- be able to interpret codes of conduct at school or work
All of these skills can be compromised for individuals with AS. If understanding harassment and stalking were simple, there would not be so many trainings about it at universities and workplaces. However, the consequences for exhibiting these behaviors can include suspension or expulsion, being fired, and being arrested.
Individuals who struggle socially may be particularly vulnerable to many dangers on the Internet. They may gravitate toward Internet communication because it allows them more time to process conversation than live speaking does. They may feel lonesome and search for company online, and they may be curious about sexuality and seek information there.
Anyone may be susceptible to unscrupulous predators on the Internet, but individuals who are socially unsophisticated, as many with AS are, are particularly vulnerable.
Dangers to consider include:
- people who pretend to be in love as a ruse to extract money
- supposed dating sites which are really the entrée into the world of pornography
- gambling sites that seem to be too good to be true
- requests to post personal information or compromising pictures
- sexual meet-ups which may be police stings, ambushes, or introductions into drug cultures.
Generally, whenever sexuality is an element, judgment can be compromised more easily.
In addition to various kinds of victimization, there are also unanticipated risks. Underage teenagers inhabit Internet sites and present particular dangers. Their motives are many, but the consequences can be devastating. Many claim to be of age and lure the inexperienced to a sexual meet-up where all sorts of personal and legal difficulties may result. Whether a troubled adolescent or law enforcement professional communicates with a young man or woman of legal age, meeting for a purpose of a planned sexual encounter can result in arrest.
Of all Internet perils, viewing pornography may be the most dangerous. While viewing adult pornography is perfectly legal, the methods of obtaining pornographic images may quickly lead someone to also receive child pornography. Arrests for child pornography have increased by 2,500% in the past ten years! The primary spread of both viewing and being arrested stems from the use of file-to-file sharing in concert with law enforcement’s growing sophistication in finding such use. Punishments have also increased in severity as the public becomes increasingly alarmed about dangerous men and women in their neighborhoods as the sex crime registries explode in numbers in every state. The aggressive prosecution for child pornography via Internet is the prime reason for this explosion.
There are various explanations as to why someone with Asperger Syndrome may come in contact with such material. They may not even be looking for pornography at first, but may have been Internet crawling on various topics. Pornography does pop up in unexpected places, which starts a dangerous pathway for the unsophisticated. Some are seeking sexual information they never internalized during adolescent years when they were either unready to hear it or were presented with only the sketchy information schools are willing to provide. Many people learn about sex through a peer group, but those with AS often do not have such a group and may be friends only with other socially inexperienced individuals. As their social age generally lags significantly behind actual age during adolescence, dating experience probably did not occur in high school. Seeking sexual information privately on the Internet is entirely understandable if you have nowhere to turn when physical maturity develops and hormones increase. Unfortunately, pornography is hardly an appropriate sexual education (although increasing numbers of adolescents utilize it as such). In addition to gaining a very unrealistic impression of adult sexuality, it is opening the rabbit hole to a very dangerous Internet world. Many young men with AS report that they were looking at legal adult pornography when child or young teenage images popped up. Once it is seen, the illegality may not register as curiosity increases.
Why are individuals with AS more vulnerable than others to child pornography? It certainly is not that they are more sexually deviant or more likely to cause harm to children. The Asperger community has been correct in rejecting that their members should be viewed this way. However, they may have more vulnerability to it than most. There are various reasons for this, including:
- They may feel rejected by age-mates, lonely and isolated and retreat to their rooms and their computers.
- They may perceive a similarity in social age between themselves and the victims.
- They may have difficulty putting themselves in the victim’s perspective.
- They may have believed that the victim was a paid actress or actor or was of legal age.
- They may simply not understand that it was illegal to view something so easily obtainable that clearly already existed.
- They may have a poor ability to imagine potential consequences, and may keep looking rather than close down the site and the computer.
- The moral and legal issues may never have been discussed and they are too abstract to really understand.
Parents often think that a son with no expression of sexual interest does not yet need to be exposed to such deviant thoughts. They also may have little understanding of the current Internet sophistication and the concept of file-to-file sharing, the main road for obtaining pornography in general. Thus their sons may not have received appropriate sexual information at home and may not have been schooled about rules for sexual or other Internet use. Once someone enters the world of file sharing, law enforcement can easily find them and the proof for prosecution is right on their own computers.
The seriousness of such an arrest for child pornography viewing cannot be overstated. Federal prosecution carries a five-year minimum jail sentence and listing as a Sexual Offender for decades or life. Punishments are often meted out based on numbers of images, and videos have thousands. In addition, jail is often an especially dangerous place for those with AS. Later, the chances for living an independent life are virtually upended as convicted sex offenders are limited to where they can live and if they will ever work, as employers must be informed. In addition, it is not uncommon to forbid computer and smart phone use for years, making normal life almost impossible. Probation may require mandated sex therapy, often in groups with more active offenders. Participation in such groups can be traumatic for individuals with AS and creates its own problems when they are viewed as uncooperative.
Individuals with AS are often easy marks for law enforcement. They may be persuaded to waive the right to an attorney and can be manipulated into confession. Attorneys who specialize in sex offender cases generally have no idea what AS is and consider it a given that there is no hope once someone is arrested. It is critical that prosecutors understand the contribution AS has made and be persuaded to show some understanding. Equally critical is to prevent this crime from happening in the first place through family education and effective intervention for those with AS.
Appropriate Sexual Education
Appropriate sexual education is vital for all maturing young adults and equally critical is an understanding of the social and cultural context of sexuality. A characteristic of AS is social immaturity or difference, so the typical concurrent development of social maturity and sexual understanding often does not occur. Yet as time marches by, legal majority and opportunities for greater freedom occur whether the family and individual are ready or not. To be prepared for this, education and intervention in both realms of social development and sexuality are necessary. Early on in young adolescence the family needs to identify how this intertwined learning is going to occur. In some cases parents may be able to fulfill some of this role, but finding an informed therapist or trusted adult outside of the family, with a clear understanding of AS, may be more effective as the young person matures. Communication and social skills curricula exist that can help young people develop socially, especially if utilized in a group format. Development of a set of rules for understanding and handling the risks of entering new cultures (college, work life, apartment living, internet use) can help the young person have default rules for a wide variety of typical risks.
Of particular importance, in light of the dangers described above, it is advisable to:
- Have rules for Internet safety.
- Discuss with the school district how they are handling sex education in general, and in particular for your son or daughter, making sure it is being presented in a way and at a time it can be internalized.
- Go over scenarios so that rules can be developed and problem solving can be practiced.
- Be an activist. Convince your school district, counseling center, community agency to do something.
- Get together with other parents and ask a therapist to start a group.
- Be creative in finding someone to help who the individual will listen to.
- Go over together definitions of harassment and stalking as they are written in codes of conduct of colleges and workplaces. They are often written in legalese or abstract language that a person with AS may not fully understand.
- Identify therapeutic resources, including those on the Internet, regarding:
- Sex education at the appropriate time and level: 100 Questions You’d Never Ask Your Parents: Straight Answers to Teens’ Questions About Sex, Sexuality, and Health, by Henderson & Armstrong; Making Sense of Sex: A Forthright Guide to Puberty, Sex and Relationships for People with Asperger’s Syndrome, by Sarah Attwood
- There is a blog by an adult with Asperger syndrome entitled 9 Things You Must Include in Sex Education for Individuals with ASD at: http://aspergersissues.tumblr.com/post/51326015960/9-things-you-must-include-in-sex-education-for
- Social thinking curricula: www.socialthinking.com
- Problem solving curricula: e.g., Critical Thinking, by Gerard Johnson)
- Interpersonal Effectiveness training: Dialectical Behavior Training books and courses
- Interpersonal Communication training: Interpersonal Communication: Everyday Encounters, by Julia T. Wood or any of a number of such texts or take a college course with Communications 101 type of content
© 2016 AHA Association. Further reproduction of this article is prohibited without express written permission of AHA. This article was reprinted with permission and was originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of AHA Association’s On The Spectrum. For more information, visit www.ahany.org.
Dr. Geller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Spectrum Services is a cooperative of independent practices and organizations in NYC. For more information, please visit www.spectrumservicesnyc.com.