Autism and Sexually Inappropriate Behavior: The Challenges of Parenting a Son Struggling with Autism and Hypersexuality

Does your autistic son struggle with sexually inappropriate behavior? In this podcast episode, Tiffany Herlin, LCSW, talks with Matthew Call, LMFT as they explore the challenges parents face when their son struggles with autism and hypersexuality. They offer guidance on how parents can rebuild their family after dealing with the emotional and psychological effects of a teenager's compulsive sexual behavior and discuss the importance of seeking professional support and therapy to restore the overall well-being of the entire family.

Beyond Autism: Addressing Sexual Behavior Concerns in Your Son

Dealing with the challenges of raising a son with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and hypersexuality can be incredibly overwhelming. Managing these behaviors is exhausting, with little respite for parents. Many caregivers feel isolated, but you are not alone, and there are ways to navigate this complex situation. Join Tiffany Herlin, LCSW, and Matt Call, LMFT of Oxbow Academy as they discuss:

  • How exposure to sexually explicit material can be traumatic and lead to problematic behaviors as autistic children reach adolescence,
  • Educating yourself by understanding legal aspects, knowing what resources are available, and finding the right therapist are crucial steps.
  • Creating a supportive network, whether through community groups or starting one yourself, can be empowering and beneficial.
  • Maintaining open, ongoing conversations about healthy sexuality and the dangers of pornography with your child.

Concerned about your teen's escalating sexual behaviors? Don't wait. Get the support you need now. Oxbow Academy can help. We offer personalized support for families facing these challenges. Call 855-676-4272 to learn how we can guide your family toward healing.

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    Tiffany: Welcome back to our podcast. My name's Tiffany and I have Matt with me from Oxbow Academy. If you've been listening, we are talking about kids who are on the spectrum, autism spectrum disorder with hypersexuality. And this episode we're going to be talking about caregivers and what they may be experiencing, challenges they face and what they can do to take care of themselves.

    If you found yourself taking care of a teenage boy with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and they are also sexually acting out, then, as you know, this is a really traumatic place of crisis and can be completely overwhelming, and that's an understatement. And can feel so isolated and alone, like they have no one to turn to. So let's talk about this. What are the challenges faced by caregivers with a son struggling with hypersexuality and autism?

    Personal Experience as a Clinician and Parent

    Matt: Well, I think the place that I always go to first, you know, I'm in kind of a unique position in the sense that as a clinician, I'm at work and I'm mostly working with individuals that are autistic. And then I have two children at home that are autistic. I've got an eight year old and she is kind of presents as more of the classical Asperger's kind of presentation. She's very, very intelligent. She's very good with her words. She was speaking in full sentences for like nine months. I mean, it was ridiculous. One of the very first words she said and she used it properly was translucent. I kid you not.

    And then we've got my four year old son who presents as I think what you would normally expect autism to present as. He uses a lot of echolalia. He'll repeat things back to you. But he doesn't spontaneously communicate. He doesn't really use words except in scripted ways. And the challenges that we have with him look more like, you know, I'm trying to communicate something to you and I can't communicate that.

    And so I'm going to smack my head into you or bite you because I just can't get across what I'm trying to get across. And that's like the baseline of, I think, where a lot of these parents began with their kids.

    Tiffany: Which is already a complicated place to be.

    Matt: You're exhausted. I was joking at the beginning that I'm actually running on about three or four hours of sleep last night because that four year old decided he wasn't going to wind down and just couldn't wind down until probably about two in the morning. So, that's like the baseline that a lot of these parents are dealing with and they're dealing with that nonstop all day, every day for years.

    Tiffany: And they don't get a break and they don't have someone who taps in and helps.

    Matt: Yeah and especially if you try to bring somebody getting involved to help you out and then it all blows up in your face, right? If you send them to a daycare and then they bite the kid. You know, if you send them to hang out with a sister or grandparents and they start getting violent. There's just so many things. So you've got this low boil that most parents are dealing with already to begin with.

    And then I think we talked about the last episode, this perfect storm of adolescence happens. They get exposed to sexually explicit material online, which is a form of trauma, and that's another tangent we can get into later, but abuse happens. You throw in that a lot of the kids, at least that I've personally worked with, I dare say, probably two thirds, at least, of the clients I've worked with at Oxbow were adopted.

    Managing Crisis and Trauma

    Matt: And so you've got the adoption trauma, potential attachment disruptions, reactive attachment disorder, those kinds of things. And it's just this powder keg of things. And all of that happens a lot of times with these parents in the matter of a few months. That this just all comes out. And it just is absolutely, there's just no way for two parents, let alone one parent to be able to deal with that.

    Tiffany: Let's just acknowledge it's traumatic for any parents to be going through this.

    Matt: It's incredibly traumatic. And then you throw in the possibility that that problematic sexual behavior might be hitting home because kids might be offending younger siblings. He might be, and I use him because Oxbow is a male program. But that doesn't mean that we don't run into issues among individuals that are transgender and obviously girls as well.

    But this stuff is happening and now we've got divided loyalties because I love my son. I want him to be here with us. I desperately want to help him. But he's also touching his younger sister and I have to think of her safety and I have to protect her because I don't want her to continue to be traumatized. So what do I do? There's kind of a no win situation for a lot of these parents. And they're just like, "What do I do? How do I handle this?"

    Tiffany: Yeah. So, how can parents manage that crisis and trauma? What are some tools we can give them to navigate that complexity?

    Matt: A lot of it I think depends on what kind of situation you're in. I think the best way to do the best thing is always, I'll tell parents, the very first thing you do is educate yourself.

    Tiffany: Yeah. Oh, absolutely.

    Matt: Get knowledgeable about what the laws are regarding this, get knowledgeable about what resources are out there. Know your area. Talk to people, talk to attorneys and say, "What normally happens in these kinds of situations." I always say, build yourself a board of directors, a group of people that you can turn to when you have something that you need specific advice about. I think that's an important place to start.

    And I realized the irony of saying this, because this is exactly what I would tell my wife and me when we're feeling depleted and exhausted is, do some self care. But then it's like, how do I do self care? I ain't got time for that.

    Tiffany: Well, I think the start is a couple of things, like you were saying. Educate yourself. Also I would even challenge parents to understand what kind of pornography their kids are looking at. Obviously, unless it's traumatizing and triggering for you, maybe have your spouse help you with that.

    But understanding what they've been exposed to is going to help you understand the severity and the level of risk they may be facing. It doesn't necessarily mean they're acting on what they've seen, but it absolutely could lead up to that. So educating that way.

    Finding Suitable Therapists

    Tiffany: But then there's also educating yourself on what kind of therapist to get your son into. There's a type of therapist that is really important and can be helpful, which is CSAT, which is Certified Sexual Addiction Therapist. Now, it's a model that's for adults, yet we don't have anything tailored for teenage boys as of now, but you can find someone who's CSAT who does work with teenage boys on the spectrum.

    Matt: Yeah. At least not on a national level. And this is why I say know your state, know what's happening cause there are some states where they will have certifications. For example, Virginia has CSOTP (Certified Sex Offender Treatment Provider). And then here in Utah, we have an organization, the Network on Juveniles Offending Sexually, and I think they're actually in the process of changing that, but NOJOS and they have kind of a credentialing process.

    So on a state by state basis, there might be some therapists that are in there, but again, the challenge you run into there is that a lot of those CSOTPs, all of those NOJOS professionals, are going to be coming at it from the perspective of the legal system. They're going to be coming at it from those kinds of perspectives of where we're used to working with models that are designed for adult offenders that may not work for teenagers, that probably don't work for teenagers and absolutely don't work for neurodivergent teenagers.

    Tiffany: That's why it's important when you're interviewing a therapist, which you should be, is first of all, find out what their credentials are, but more importantly, find out what their experiences are. Do they have experience working with teenagers who sexually act out? And specifically with teenagers on the spectrum, right? So those are the types of therapists because once you can kind of contain the situation, get your son or, you know, whoever your child is to help.

    And then also if there is a victim in your house, we talked about on this other podcast that we did it with Oxbow, but making sure if there's a victim, making sure they get help and they're separated, they feel safe. They're getting a therapist. That's the point when parents can kind of take a step back and say, "Okay, now I have to take care of myself." which could be finding a therapist for yourself or even practicing some meditation on your car rides. Just deep breathing. That's maybe all you have time for. And guess what? If that's all you have time for, then that's what you need to do.

    Lack of Support for Problematic Sexual Behavior

    Matt: The other thing I think I would throw out there just, you know, having run a number of of groups with parents that coming through Oxbow probably one of the most common things that I hear that comes out of a lot of those groups is not only the isolation, the loneliness, which, you know, we kind of talked about, you know, there's tremendous resources out there, broadly speaking, right? But if you're in a rural area, maybe not. But there's really good resources out there. There's great group therapies for working with neurodivergent kids. There's groups out there that deal with issues like drug addiction and stuff like that.

    But when it hits problematic sexual behavior, there's nothing like it. Nobody wants to talk about that. And so what I've noticed, to me it's nothing short of heroic, is that a lot of times the parents I've worked with, they say, "I'm tired of being on the defensive on this. This is stupid. I'm going on the offensive." And these parents go and they say, "we're going to start this." And they reach out to their church and they reach out to their community and they say, "we need to talk about this. We need to start something. So if we don't have it, we're going to create it."

    Tiffany: Which is amazing.

    Matt: And that is absolutely heroic parents that are doing this, that are saying, "We're gonna take the stigma out of this. We're gonna create a safe space for you guys to be able to come through and talk about it within a no judgment zone," because there's so much judgment with these parents. “Didn't you monitor them? Why did you give them a cell phone so early?” Everything and my experience has been, these are not slacking off parents. These are parents that have, and especially when you're working with parents that have neurodivergent kids, they have probably been doing ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) with them for a long time. They've probably been doing play therapy. They've probably pursued every resource. These are plucky, gritty parents, most of the time, who have been doggedly advocating for their kids for years, you know, and so. In my experience, this is not parents that are just slacking off and letting their kids run roughshod over their lives.

    They're really trying to do the best that they can in this situation and they're trying to make use of the resources, but the problem is that sometimes the resources just aren't there. And so a lot of times these parents say, "we're going to go create them. If they're not there, we're going to create this."
    And so that's another thing I would say is if you find yourself in that spot, go on the offensive.

    Tiffany: I love it.

    Matt: Start creating what is not there because there's a need for it. I guarantee there's a need for it. If you worry, am I going to make a difference? You will, you will make a difference.

    Importance of Open Discussion and Support

    Tiffany: This topic, I mean, Autism Spectrum Disorder should be more talked about, less stigmatized, and people should be more educated on. And then adding in the hypersexuality and sexually acting out, I mean, that needs to be talked about just as much, if not more because believe it or not, if you're listening to this podcast, you're not alone.

    There's other parents listening to this podcast, and it's interesting. Once parents start getting brave and putting themselves out there, they find those parents who are there and they realize like, I am not alone and I can have someone else to talk to. And I'm not crazy. I'm not living in crazy town, you know.

    Matt: Bar none, that is my absolute favorite thing about when Oxbow does our parent seminars is those parent support groups because it is just so, Oh, it's so refreshing to get to see these parents sit down in the room. And a lot of times that you can tell they're nervous.

    Tiffany: They're so nervous. Am I going to be judged?

    Matt: And I think back when I was a rookie therapist, when I first started working, I felt like I had to kind of like step in and like help those parents along. And what I've learned is usually nowadays, ask one or two questions and they just spark up and they just start going and they're itching to get this out. They're itching to start talking about it. And all it takes is that first brave person to say, "Yeah, my child abused his younger sister." And then four or five other hands go up.

    Tiffany: Or they stole my underwear and that's a crazy one. Or they looked up something with My Little Ponies that was sexual. And it's like, "Oh my gosh, I'm not the only one."

    Matt: Like they're drawing at anthropomorphic animals with penises and they're having sex with each other. What is this? You know, and so it's like, you take all that stigma out of this and say, these things are real, and they're not real because they're necessarily part of "normal" sexual behavior. They're real in large part because we live in a world that turns everything sexual, right? And that's where the education piece comes in as parents need to be aware of what internet culture looks like. And I think once a lot of these parents realize that, they just can't look at it the same way afterwards

    Tiffany: And realizing that rather than stigmatizing their kid and thinking them as this awful bad kid, even though they know they love them, but that they're doing this awful thing, realizing like, oh, like understanding how their kid brain works and that there are other kids struggling with these issues, not because they are "bad kids," but because they are being exposed to this culture and internet of pornography that is just so out of our control. Does that make sense?

    Matt: Absolutely.

    Emotional Experience of Raising a Child with a Disability

    Tiffany: I know you brought this really important letter and I think it's going to be super helpful to share with our listeners.

    Matt: So, yeah, this is, Emily Pearl Kingsley. She was a writer for Sesame Street for a number of years. She's retired now.

    But she has a son who has down syndrome and she wrote this beautiful kind of a letter describing her experience as somebody who has a special needs child.

    And while, again, this is obviously written towards that audience of working with when you have kids that have Down syndrome or some other kinds of disabilities. For me, this just totally encapsulates what it's like to be a parent with neurodivergent kids. And to some extent, it's also more broadly an experience that I think anybody who has a child who's engaging in problematic sexual behavior goes through.

    So this is called Welcome to Holland. I'll just read this. It says:

    I'm often asked to describe the experience of raising a child with a disability to try to help people who have not shared that unique experience, understand it, to imagine how it would feel. It's like this. When you're going to have a baby, it's like planning a fabulous vacation trip to Italy. You buy a bunch of guidebooks and make your wonderful plans. The Coliseum, the Michelangelo David, the gondolas in Venice. You may learn some handy phrases in Italian. It's all very exciting. After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands.
    The flight attendant comes in and says, "Welcome to Holland."

    "Holland?" You say, "What do you mean, Holland? I signed up for Italy. I'm supposed to be in Italy. All my life, I've dreamed of going to Italy." But there's been a change in the flight plan. They've landed in Holland and there you must stay.
    The important thing is that they haven't taken you to a horrible, disgusting, filthy place full of pestilence, famine, and disease. It's just a different place. So you must go out and buy new guidebooks, and you must learn a whole new language, and you will meet a whole new group of people you would never have met.

    It's just a different place. It's slower paced than Italy, less flashy than Italy, but after you've been there for a while and you catch your breath, you'll look around and you begin to notice Holland has windmills and Holland has tulips. Holland even has Rembrandts. And this is, this for me is a crucial piece.

    But everyone you know is busy coming and going from Italy. And they're all bragging about what a wonderful time they had there. And for the rest of your life, you're going to say, yes, that's where I was supposed to go. That's what I planned. And the pain of that will never, ever, ever, ever go away because the loss of that dream is a very significant loss.
    But if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn't get to Italy, you may never feel free to enjoy the very special, very lovely things about Holland.

    And that again is Emily Pearl Kings. I love, love this. I always share this with parents when we're doing parent support groups.

    I am an avid Disney-aholic. I've gone to Disneyland with my parents for years and years and years. And one of the things, realizations that I've had to have as a parent is because of the nature of the situation with my kids, I ain't taking them to Disneyland. It's just not going to happen.

    And so there's these very real losses. I think parents set out and they think, well, my kid's going to grow up and he's going to go do the junior prom and he's going to be on the football team.

    Tiffany: And even if they're not into it, go to this college.

    Matt: Even if they're not into the smaller scale stuff, my kid's going to have a friend at school and my kid's going to be able to come with me to the store, right?

    Concerns for Autistic Children

    Matt: And, there's just so much with autism generally, that just is a real challenge for these parents. And those losses are real. But the problem is, is that if you spend all your time being upset that you did not get the child that you thought you were getting, that you thought you were going to get, you end up missing the actual child that you have and I realize as I read this, that I know that there's parents out there that are listening, that are going to say, "Well, it's all well and good to talk about this kind of gushy stuff, but what about when my delightful Dutch child from Holland decides that he wants to bite his younger sister or decides to have a meltdown in the middle of the Walmart parking lot."

    Tiffany: Or even worse, getting into deviant sexual porn.

    Matt: And there's been a lot of spotlight on police violence lately. And we had a case in Utah just a few years ago where we had an autistic kid who was in the middle of a meltdown, and was having some real struggles. I don't think the police knew how to handle the situation.

    It was not properly addressed and the kid got shot and killed. And again, every parent's nightmare is that those kinds of things are going to happen. I've worked with a lot of parents that say, "My kids have talked about wanting to do a school shooting," and there's a lot of fear around this.

    So again, it makes it sound soft and gushy and there's just so much fear. There's so much like, but what if this happens? And, it's not unfounded fear. These things are happening to autistic kids all over the country.

    Tiffany: Which is why we need to be talking about this more and helping educate people about kids who are on the spectrum, but then also helping parents have the resources and support that they need to better raise their kids in a better environment. These kids and parents deserve that.

    Is there anything else we want to touch on in regards to support for parents and caregivers?

    Matt: I think the only thing that I would really add at the end is just recognize that because of this situation that in some ways, you and your child are going to speak a different language. Recognize that you may not and clearly be communicating what you think you're communicating with them.

    Tiffany: That's a good point.

    Matt: And they may not be communicating what they think they're communicating. I can't tell you how many times I've been in a therapy session with a kid who's anxious because he's doing his disclosure or he's going through some kind of an assignment where it's really difficult and he's swaying back and forth in his chair and bumping and his eyes are all over the place.

    And parents, from a neurotypical lens, are looking at that and they're saying, "He's not paying attention. He's not taking this seriously. He thinks that this is a big joke for him." That's not what's going on. And so I think recognizing that it is almost kind of like speaking two separate languages, learning to recognize the difference between legitimate issue things that kids are doing to try to help themselves stay regulated, stimming and things like that, versus willful disobedience.

    Same thing with when kids shut down. If they just stop talking, a lot of times it's like, he just wants to avoid this. He just doesn't want to deal with it. Am I being defiant? And that might be the case. I'm not saying that isn't a possibility. And at the same time, two things can be true at once, and at the same time, this could also be a kid who's out of his window of tolerance. He's overwhelmed. He's not going to be able to communicate anymore. And any further attempts to try to do that is just going to entrench him even further.

    And it's hard because parents want answers. They want clarity. They want clear communication and sometimes that means you have to go cross-cultural and you have to learn a new language.

    Teaching about Healthy Sexuality

    Tiffany: Let's take that also to understanding how to teach a kid who's on a spectrum about healthy sexuality as well. Sometimes parents may think, "Okay, we sat down and we had the talk we had at one time. We're good right? He understood me." That may not be the case. So, parents need to understand that it should be an ongoing conversation.

    Matt: It should be an open dialogue, really.

    Tiffany: And to help them understand not just about sex, but also about pornography and the dangers of pornography and how pornography is fantasy and not reality.

    And rather than seeking out that road, I think some parents are nervous. So if I talk about it, my kid's going to seek it out.

    No, the truth is they're going to seek it out anyway.

    Matt: Pretty good chance they will. Or they'll stumble upon it and a lot of times they don't necessarily seek it out. Or if they do, they're seeking it out because some kid at school made some comment that they didn't know what it was.

    Tiffany: Or some kids showed them their phone and said, "Hey, look at this."

    I'm hesitating if I share this one story or not, but it was interesting. We had a student at our facility who struggled with excessive masturbation and when he was actually able to talk with his therapist what was going on and what his thought process was, reality was he thought that every time he got an erection, he needed to take care of it and masturbate. When in reality, It was a simple education. Once we understood how his brain processed this, helping him understand that that's actually not what needs to happen, there are other things you can do to navigate this.

    Matt: Well, even the normative aspects of adolescence, I mean, kids who are 11, 12, 13 years old will get erections from smelling paint. I mean, it doesn't matter what the issue is. They'll get an erection because that's just part of what happens when your body changes. And an erection doesn't always mean that you're actually sexually aroused. It might mean you need to go to the bathroom. It might mean you're tired.

    Tiffany: There's so many things.

    Matt: But if you don't openly discuss that, yeah. And the kids aren't going to spontaneously come to you and be like, "Yeah, I'm having an erection and I don't know why," you know? Because if we don't create an environment where it's okay to talk about these things, and you really have to do that early, you have to do that like two, three, four, five years before you think it's going to be an issue. And I think that's where a lot of this comes from: parents think, "well, if he's going to get exposed to porn, it's going to happen when he's like 13 or 14." Average age is like eight right now. So yeah, you can't wait till 12, 13, because they may have been watching porn for four or five years by that point.

    Tiffany: And then helping them understand that what they're seeing isn't healthy. And that there is a healthier way to navigate their sexuality, which is perfectly normal to have all that. I agree.


    Tiffany: I mean, there's so much more we could talk about with helping parents navigate this complexity.

    In fact, in our next episode, we're going to be helping parents practice strategies for managing these behaviors and tips for monitoring technology as well. So a little more applicable and tactile kind of conversation.

    Well again, this is a difficult conversation. But if you're a parent listening, you're not alone and we know that you probably ended up in Holland when you were hoping to be in Italy and we want you to realize like that's okay and you're not the only parent who ended up there.

    Matt: It's a nice place. Once you realize that, it actually is a lot simpler. Yeah, I joke with my wife that everybody was really struggling when COVID 19 started and the shutdowns happened and for my wife and I, we were like, is anything different? Doesn't really feel all that different to us. We're still cooped up inside. Yep. That's the same as usual.

    Tiffany: Yeah. Well, thank you again for having this conversation with us, Matt, and we look forward to our next episode.

    Matt: Thanks.

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