Navigating taboos, parents grapple with sexual stirrings of children with special needs
When puberty struck, one conservative mother had to learn to support her girls’ sexual development while coming up against the taboo around the topic. It took her years to find the kind of advice she was seeking.
SINGAPORE: Jacqueline Ang’s eldest daughter was 10 years old when it happened for the first time.
The girl was at home lying on the floor, her body trembling. After a while, she got frustrated and cried.
“What was she doing?” wondered Ang, who could not imagine at first that her daughter was trying to masturbate. It was also not something she could ask her daughter, whose severe form of autism meant she was non-verbal.
After observing the girl for a period of time, however, her actions became apparent.
“She’d put her hands at her private parts, and then she’d even try to put things at her private parts,” recounts Ang, 44. “Eventually, she also did it at school. So the teacher also saw it.”
The girl’s younger twin sister followed suit a year later.
Both of them were diagnosed with a similar form of autism when they were two and a half years old. Now at the age of 18, they have the intellectual development of two-year-olds.
In taking care of their special needs growing up, it had not crossed Ang’s mind that she would have to confront the issue of sexuality in a special way too.
“I thought it would just come naturally and they’d adapt to it naturally, and that was it,” she says. “As parents, we always focused on … whether they could go to school (or) take care of their own daily living.”
But when puberty struck, this conservative mother had to find ways to support their sexual development while coming up against the taboo around the topic.
It was only last year when the Disabled People’s Association (DPA) organised its first sexuality workshop for people with mental and physical disabilities, and their carers.
The event was a small one and not publicly promoted. But that was when Ang saw that she was not alone in trying to get a handle on sexuality in youngsters with autism.
She also found practical advice to put into action — all part of a journey she has learnt to embrace.
THREATS DIDN’T WORK
When her eldest daughter started masturbating at school, Ang’s first reaction was to threaten her if she did not stop, for example by taking out the cane to scare her.
“That’s how we were brought up,” says the mother of three. “When we didn’t behave, our parents punished us, and then we’d fear the punishment (and) not do the behaviour.”
That approach, however, quickly got her nowhere.
“I realised that it wasn’t effective … The more we scolded her, in fact, (the more) her emotions just broke. The meltdowns were very frequent. Then we also got frustrated,” she recounts.
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