A recent decision by a British court to ban an autistic woman with intellectual disabilities from having sex raises many issues that parents of autistic children and teenagers would perhaps not rather address but need to be considered.
A Court of Protection ruled that a 29-year-old women describing as having “mild learning disabilities and atypical autism” does not “have the mental capacity to engage in sexual relations, on the basis that she does not understand the implications and cannot effectively deploy the information she has understood into her decisions” (the judgment is here as a PDF).
The woman, referred to as H, is described as having a “history of a very early and very deep degree of sexualisation”; she had “engaged in sexual behavior” that she had not consented to. In 2003, a man was convicted of raping her. H’s disabilities were known to authorities since she was a child, as she was listed on the child protection register; the local authority also had records about her as an adult. After seeking “refuge in the home of a man called R who reported H’s sexual activities, vulnerability and disinhibition to the authorities” in 2009, H was hospitalized until 2011, during which attempts were made to “educate her and ascertain her understanding of sexual relations.” But in December of 2011, H was was placed under 1:1 supervision and was then “not free to leave her accommodation on any other basis, even to attend her part-time employment.”
The judge who presided over the decision to ban H from having sex was “reluctant to conclude a lack of capacity” in her, but found that her capacity to “use and weigh” information about sexual behavior and its consequences was such that the court should still “guard” and “restrict” these in her “best interests.” The judge did note that the decision, which indeed amounts to a “deprivation of liberty,” was very difficult to make and that “improvement and maturation” could occur for H and “that the matter should be kept under review.”
My son will turn 15 in the middle of May: In six short years he will be a legal adult and, due to the extent of his cognitive disabilities, we have begun to take steps to declare guardianship of him when he turns 18; as part of this, we will have to have him declared mentally incompetent and unable to make financial and other decisions for himself. We are certainly starting to plan to make sure that Charlie always has, if not 1:1 supervision, some sort of care worker with him at all times. Sex education is addressed for Charlie primarily in terms of “safety,” in regard to appropriate behavior in public (in public restrooms in particular). Due to the extent of Charlie’s disabilities, it is highly unlikely that he would ever be unaccompanied in public but, like it or not, we have to factor in all possibilities.
The court decision about H does not mention family members or guardians. Her intellectual disabilities, and the fact that she had been raped in 2003, suggest that some sorts of protection and/or intervention could have been provided for her earlier. Had her education as a child included sex education? H’s case reminds me that parents of children of all ages with disabilities need to address these issues honestly and frankly, in order to best care for those we love while respecting their dignity.
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