Written by health educator Kate E. Reynolds, this book is part of a series on sexuality and sexual safety for boys and young men on the autism spectrum. The UK author recommends this book for use with people who have a severe form of autism. By US conventions, the book is squarely targeted at those with moderate symptoms of autism. This may be a reflection of the difference in the way autism spectrum disorders are viewed in the UK and the US. With support, the text is accessible to people who fall within a wide range of language comprehension abilities and social development. It is intended to be read with an adult though the inviting illustrations and friendly text will likely draw readers back to review on their own.
Reynolds’ easy going, positive narrative belies the careful attention paid to both the structure and substance of the content. Sentences and terms are relatively simple, key concepts are repeated for emphasis and the parallel structure of the writing underscores the idea that masturbation is a normal and enjoyable thing to do just like the many other things that the main character likes to do (such as singing and playing on his computer.) Situating masturbation as an activity to always be done in private is the main point of the story. Along the way to making this point, the author uses concrete examples to help the reader understand which things (activities, behavior, body parts) are private and which are public. For instance, the reader learns that private body parts are those that are typically covered by underwear and that one reason for wearing clothes in public is to hide these private zones. Imparting the reasoning behind social expectations – we are expected to wear clothing in public in order to keep others from seeing our private zones - is a critical element of social cognition. While many books on puberty tell the reader not to touch his penis in public, this one takes the crucial next step which is to tell the reader what to do instead – in this case, wait until he gets home to touch himself. This may be an insignificant matter to many neurotypical readers but it’s a fundamental need for people on the spectrum who are at a loss for what *to do* when they are told to refrain from doing something. This book scores high for its accessibility and use of strategies to address social learning differences.
Jonathon Powell’s illustrations match the friendly tone of the text. The topic calls for accurate, believable drawings that are relatable and engaging to adolescents who may have already encountered negative messages about touching their own bodies. His images convey anatomical detail in a non-sexualized and body-positive fashion.
While there are many reasons to recommend this work there are some perplexing problems too. Proper use of terminology is a big deal for people on the autism spectrum who may experience inflexible or literal thinking. Inexplicably, Reynolds completely avoids using the words “masturbation” and “erection” in the body of the text. The term “masturbation” appears in the book’s subtitle and nowhere else. Erections are not mentioned by name anywhere though they are featured prominently in the story and illustrations. Another questionable word choice appears regarding the private zones on girls’ and women’s bodies which are identified as their “breasts”, “vaginas” and “buttocks.” In this case, I think the term “vagina” is at least misleading. As any well-informed adolescent on the autism spectrum will be the first to point out, female genitalia are not collectively known as vaginas. Somewhat less of a quibble, but still inaccurate, is the use of the word “sperm” as a substitute for “semen.” Using loose, imprecise language with a population of people who benefit from clear and consistent terminology could easily result in misunderstanding or socially inappropriate behavior. Adults intending to read this book with a boy or young man on the autism spectrum are advised to review the vocabulary first and edit as needed.
© 2014 Kristin Nelson