Autism and Child Pornography: A Toxic Combination

Why autistic men are viewing child pornography—and being labeled sex offenders.


While in the throes of compiling a history of the social impact of autism, I came upon a story that I wish weren’t true.

A young male adult with autism took his computer in for repairs. The repair shop found child pornography on his hard drive and turned him in to the police. In court he was adjudicated a “predator”—a legal label he will wear for life. A label that will bar him from any job that involves children, and from any “assisted living” home for an adult such as himself.

When child pornography hits the law, the law is not friendly, no matter the circumstances—nor the understandable dysfunction of the perpetrator. One psychologist described to me her court experience with an adult autistic male. The judge pointed at her and said: “You should be dealing with this before I have to deal with it.”

One of the least understood and least discussed aspects of male sex offenders is the sexual response of those who live with autism. Part of the reason is that the group is very small; numbers are not available, and few arrests are on record. However, its significance points to a major lack: we don’t yet understand the social neurology of autism, nor its link to the role of supportive parental guidance. Particularly that of fathers for their sons.

My daughter, Temple Grandin, a doctor of animal science, a professor at Colorado State University, and a world-famous advocate for autism, was diagnosed as autistic at age 2. In those early years I loved her, guided her, found teachers for her, and opened doors for her. As the years progressed and she began achieving a triumphant and meaningful life on her own, I began my own more serious study: doctors, teachers, researchers, psychologists, pathologists, counselors. Their knowledge of autism, though limited neurologically, was far-reaching socially. Over the years this knowledge has given me insight into autism’s social hurdles. This is why today I’m deeply distressed over the toxic combination of autistic men and child pornography.

However, before any of us can express an opinion, we—the parents, doctors, counselors, lawyers, and judges—need to review and clarify what we know thus far about autism’s neurology and why it disorients both those on the spectrum and us.

For starters, as bio-neurologist Antonio Damasio tells us, “We are not thinking beings who feel; we are feeling beings who think. The mind is in the service of the body.” By that, he means the neurological body. You can have a first-rate mind, but if the neurology is skewed, the thinking will also be skewed. Particularly social thinking. We’re social creatures incomplete without each other. Our communication is locked into a pattern that feels social and conscious, but is mostly neurological.

Because of autism’s skewed neurology, those with Autism Spectrum Disorder take in the world around them physical object by physical object—floor, ceiling, table, chair—with no sense of the whole picture, and no understanding that along with the chairs and tables there’s a non-physical reality. As a result, they literally cannot see the forest for the trees, nor understand what we mean when we use the expression. This double lack inhibits their ability to grasp the idea behind a social exchange or to understand that the exchange is fluid and cannot be controlled precisely. Given these limitations, ASDs function best by memorizing each separate moment, much as you would memorize the spelling of a word. And they’re good at this, very good.

But here’s the catch. The moment they’ve memorized doesn’t apply to the next moment, and there’s another moment coming, and another and another. It doesn’t stop. It’s not surprising, therefore, that they’re rigid, that they like to repeat rituals. They’re trying to make the uneasy moment stand still.

Early intervention is the best way to help. Using their skill with visual processing, ASDs can learn by rote how to negotiate the neuro-typical world.

The other big help—one that many teachers use—is the computer. Computers and ASDs think alike: both substitute memory and logic for social spontaneity. As my daughter Temple has explained it: “When I need a solution to the moment, I take out my memory videos and find the one that fits the best.”

Along with struggling with social spontaneity, ASDs also have trouble with context, i.e. the relationship of one object to another, of one situation to another. So does a computer. A computer cannot distinguish the relevant difference between a misspelled e-mail address and bringing a gun through airport security. Nor can a computer deal with random. At best it carries a program that imitates random. Ditto those on the autism spectrum.

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All this makes computers and ASDs perfect pals for each other—particularly for boys. Many ASD boys lack muscle tone and the physical drive that goes with it. It’s easy for them to skip outdoor exercise and sit for hours in front of a computer screen figuring out logic systems, a skill that today’s culture honors and pays money for, and also a great way to feel smart when the other boys call them dumb.

This partnership works up to a point. But there will still be those life needs that have to be taught by visible demonstration. For example, toilet training: a process that isn’t so difficult for a father to demonstrate when his son is a small child.

But then comes adolescence, and Mother Nature says: “Throw away the rule book, I’m going to give you a new body with new behavior urges that can’t be demonstrated the way the toilet was and won’t work the same way your computer calculations do. Nevertheless, just in case the urges set you to longing for a demonstration, search the internet and you’ll find it. It’ll be kind of like the toilet only more exciting—better than movies or TV—and you’ll be alone in your room where you can do anything you want.”

It’s the “anything you want” that makes the trouble.

Though now equipped with a full-grown body and full-grown sexual drive, many ASD males are stuck emotionally at a prepubescent age. They look like grown men, but inside they’re only 10 years old. They don’t want adults to show them how sex is done; they want 10-year-olds to show them. Back in school when they were little and the other kids played “you show me yours and I’ll show you mine,” ASDs were left out. Now at last they’ve found a way to join the old childhood game and it’s with their trusty friend, the computer.

Except that’s not how the law sees it. Or how we see it. There are gaps not only in our legal appraisal of this bind, but also in our view of the sexual dynamics of ASDs.

To quote autism psychologist and researcher Gary Mesibov: “We often find that young men with ASD are functioning intellectually at average, or even above-average levels. However, their social and interpersonal level is that of a 10- or 11-year-old ... I think this explains why their social-sexual preferences are to observe girls at this age, just as typical 10- or 11-year-old boys prefer interacting, flirting, and thinking about sexual relationships with 10- or 11-year-old girls.”

Forensic psychologist Michael Teague wonders if young ASD males are viewing child porn partly because viewing adults may disgust or scare them. Some, he says, may have been sexually abused by adults. Victimization studies state that as many as one out of 10 boys have been molested, and the Department of Justice reports that the rate of molestation triples for boys with disabilities. In a society saturated with sexual messages, where typical teens brag about sexual exploits they’ve probably never had, an ASD boy who constantly has to struggle with the simplicities of eye contact and respecting others’ personal space is lost. That being so, who will guide him through the mysterious tangle of sex? He may know the physical steps of the act, he may even have learned them by heart, but that won’t help him get to the heart of the matter.

In other words, where is the father who should be guiding him?

Statistics say that one child in 60 is on the ASD spectrum, and that the spectrum is primarily male: 4 to 1 in autism and 10 to 1 in Asperger. Yet few fathers attend autism conferences. At the last conference where the subject of teenage sexuality came up, there were 400 women and three lone men—who turned out to be teachers.

Doctors aren’t around either. Medical grants are business contracts given out for a specific medical goal, usually a popular goal that can be celebrated at a money-raising dinner. The corporate eye does not light up over inappropriate sexual behavior and entanglement with the law. So no grant-seeking doctor is about to pin his medical career on a topic that will never get financed.

When child pornography surfaces, parents struggle with the humiliation of court procedure. Also its cost. Twenty thousand dollars can disappear into lawyers’ fees and still not work. At the same time, fearful of what the neighbors will think, families do everything they can to hide the action. And the neighbors, even if they know the truth, will pretend it hasn’t happened.

Autism is old. For 150 years its mortifying confusions have been swept under the carpet with the court adjudication “stubborn child.” Wouldn’t today be a good time—in our nothing-stays-hidden culture—to bring the confusion out in the open? Not that we’ll see a ready answer, but at least we could begin a straightforward, sympathetic response before something tragic happens and we wish we’d paid attention.

I asked Tony Attwood, an internationally known autism counselor who works directly with those young men with Asperger who despair of finding their way in the world—or of even understanding it.

“Were you ever able to stop a boy from suicide?”

He turned from me, his face taut: “I think maybe I did ... once.”

Correction: A previous version of this article cited an incorrect statistic regarding the divorce rate of parents with autistic children. Several studies have shown that the rate is comparable to that of parents without autistic children.