Conference Coverage

Autistic youth face higher risks from online child pornography


 

REPORTING FROM THE AAPL ANNUAL MEETING

Child pornography and autistic youth

Teens with autism spectrum disorder might be particularly at higher risk for accessing child pornography and subsequent conviction. Autistic youth’s weaknesses in social skills make it difficult for them to understand the unwritten rules and subjectivity of dating. While their bodies and hormones are changing, their mental age might lag, and their weak interpersonal skills limit their ability to move a relationship in a romantic direction.

Meanwhile, autistic youth might feel more comfortable interacting with others on their computers. Paired with a difficulty in judging others’ age and a limited awareness or understanding of the potential outcomes of their actions, autistic youth can easily fall into a trap of accessing child pornography.

Porn might become a substitute for human interaction, and the accessibility of porn online makes it easy to discover child pornography whose “mere existence implies legality,” Dr. Sussman said. Further, youth are drawn toward images depicting people they personally identify with in terms of their social or emotional age.

Given that pornography typically is not discussed by parents or in sex education, “there have been some cases where people who have autism spectrum disorders have gotten in trouble,” Dr. Sussman said. Autistic youth also might struggle to make the connection between what’s wrong in real life versus what might appear abstract and more acceptable on a computer.

The realities of this special population have several implications courts should consider, Dr. Sussman said. For one, their actions may be misinterpreted as criminal when they might not pose the same level of danger to society as someone else who accesses child pornography. In general, criminal behavior is statistically lower among autistic individuals, but victimization of them is higher than average.

Yet it might be difficult for courts to perceive deficits in individuals with stronger (“high-functioning”) skills in some areas. Courts also should consider how an autistic person might fare in a correctional facility, where inability to understand and adhere to the prison environment’s social structure could prove fatal.

Autistic individuals might be more inclined to report those who break rules and might have an eagerness to please that makes them easily manipulated. Prison staff might misinterpret their behavior, and autistic inmates might be at risk for higher rates of isolation for their own protection.

Preventing teens, those with autism, from accessing child pornography requires teaching “digital citizenship and online safety,” Dr. Sussman said. Physicians should provide anticipatory guidance when it comes to puberty, sex, romantic interests, and masturbation, she said, and parents can us parental controls.

Youth, especially autistic youth, should be taught the difference between acceptable (“good”) touch, versus unacceptable (“bad”) touch, respect of personal space, and the difference between public and private behavior. Discussions of reality vs. fantasy – especially considering how unrealistic online porn often is – and the definition of consent are also vital preventive strategies.

Dr. Sussman had no conflicts of interest.

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