Bodies and body parts: teaching children with ASD

If you teach your child the names for ‘private’ body parts at the same time as other body parts, he’ll learn that these are body parts too, just like toes and arms.

It’s best to use formal terms like ‘vulva’ or ‘penis’ to teach private body parts. But it’s also a good idea to teach your child other informal names for body parts, which she might hear at school – for example, ‘boobs’ for breasts.

Here are some tips that can help you teach your child about body parts:

  • Use everyday moments: for example, bath time or while you’re helping your child to get dressed are good opportunities to introduce the names of body parts.
  • Look at a book: you can use the pictures to help your child learn the names for the parts of the body and understand the differences between boys and girls.
  • Sing songs: songs such as ‘Head, shoulders, knees and toes’ are a fun way for children to learn body parts.
  • Play games: you can add naming body parts into a game your child enjoys, such as being tickled – for example, ‘Now I’ll tickle your toes!’
  • Use dolls with realistic body parts: you can name the body parts when you’re playing with your child.
  • Colour a picture: your child might enjoy colouring pictures or drawings of different body parts while you label them together.
  • Use visual supports such as Social Stories™.

Boys’ bodies and girls’ bodies

Looking at pictures in books is a good way to teach your child about the difference between boys and girls, and how bodies change as you grow up.

When you look at the pictures, you can show your child the differences between boys and girls and the differences between a child’s body and an adult’s body.

You could also show your child pictures of yourself at different ages.

Children with ASD can have a hard time imagining how something might apply to them, so it can help to talk about your child’s own body. For example, ‘When you get older, you’ll grow hair on your face like Daddy’.

Children and teenagers with ASD might need longer to understand that their bodies will change in puberty. You can help your child get used to the idea by starting preparations early.

Public vs private body parts

It’s important for your child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to understand the difference between public and private parts of the body. This will help your child understand what’s OK to do in private but not in public.

You might want to start with the idea of naked versus clothed.

Bath time is an ideal time to do this. It gives you the chance to talk about when it’s OK to be naked and when you need to wear clothes. For example, ‘It’s OK to be naked in the bath or shower’, or ‘I have to wear clothes when I come out of my room’. You could also use dolls or pictures to help.

You could also make a list with your child of when it’s OK to be naked in front of other people, or when it’s OK to see other people naked – for example, when your child is getting changed for swimming. This might be a written list, or pictures of places such as the changing room.

You can also talk about what things are OK to do in public, and what you should do in private. For example, ‘When I need to go to the toilet, I should shut the door’.

Visual schedules can help with this – for example, you might have pictures of your child walking into the toilet, closing the door, using the toilet, washing his hands, and finally opening the door again and leaving. It’s a good idea to keep the schedule in a place that’s easy for your child to see, such as next to the sink.

Personal boundaries and safety: good touch and bad touch

You can also teach your child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) some basic personal safety skills that are appropriate for her age. This includes knowing the difference between ‘good touch’ and ‘bad touch’.

Behaviour can be either good or bad depending on the situation. For example, your child’s doctor might need to check all of your child’s body parts, not just the public ones. Another example is hugs. A hug from a classmate is OK, but a hug from a stranger is not.

You might make a general rule that a bigger or older person shouldn’t touch a child’s private parts unless it’s to keep them clean – for example, washing them in the bath – or healthy – for example, a doctor checking a child.

Visual supports can be helpful for explaining these differences. For example, you could use a picture of a hug from a friend with a green tick, versus a picture of a hug from a stranger with a red cross. Clear photographs of appropriate behaviour and touching can also be helpful.

Personal boundaries and safety: unwanted touch

Some children with ASD don’t like physical , and that’s OK.

Along with good and bad touch, you can also teach your child about unwanted touch. For example, if your child doesn’t want a hug from a relative, he can learn polite ways to say no. These might include just saying ‘No thank you’, holding his hand out to shake instead, or holding his hand up for a high-five.

If you’re worried about offending family and friends, let them know that you’re teaching your child basic safety skills about her body, including what to do about unwanted touch.

Circle of friends

The circle of friends activity can help children understand their own and other people’s personal boundaries and safety.

In this activity, you draw your child in the centre with circles around him. Family are closest, and strangers furthest away. Here’s how to talk about the circles with your child:

  • Family: these are the people who live at home with me.
  • Extended family: these are the people who are my family but don’t live in my home with me – for example, my grandmother, grandfather, aunt, uncle and cousins.
  • Friends: a friend is someone I know very well. My friends care about me and I care about them too. I trust my friends and they trust me.
  • Acquaintances: there’s a difference between an acquaintance and a friend. An acquaintance is someone whose name I know and who I see every now and then. I feel comfortable around acquaintances. An acquaintance might be a friend of a family member.
  • Teachers: these are the people who stand in front of the class at school and teach me things.
  • Helpers: these are the people who help with things – for example, a sports coach at a club.
  • Servers: these are the people who work in shops, cafes, restaurants or clothing stores. It is their job to serve customers like me.
  • Strangers: a stranger is someone I don’t know. I don’t know a stranger’s name.

You can talk with your child about who falls into each circle. What sort of behaviour might be OK in each circle? For example, which people would it be OK to kiss or hug?

Teaching your child about bodies and personal boundaries is just like teaching your child any other skill. You need to be consistent and give your child plenty of opportunities to practise.
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