The day that we talked about rape jokes

One day this summer, staff of our oldest boys came up to me.

“Jen,” they said. “Can we do a group on rape comments? The sexual jokes keep coming and yesterday [Name] made a joke about what he would do to [Celebrity] if he found her drunk and passed out. They just don’t get that rape isn’t something to joke about. And I think they get so much of this from the internet. They just don’t understand.”

[For a little more context: these boys, besides being clueless adolescents, also happen to all have Asperger’s Syndrome, or related social-cognitive challenges.]

And so the following morning I sat with the group of 13-15-year-old boys.

“Remember a few weeks ago we talked about jokes?” I began.

“Yeah, like the deadly jokes?” one of them asked.

“How you can’t joke about suicide or religion or race,” another added.

“Right. And what did we say about sexual innuendo jokes?” I asked. We quickly reviewed how, at their age, innuendo exists, and it’s funny. It can be funny to look at a banana and think it looks like something else. It can be funny to hear someone say “I blew so hard,” when talking about blowing up a balloon. It’s okay. That’s expected. It just depends on who you share innuendo with, and when. You don’t make that type of joke with a staff member, or a teacher, or a parent.

I asked them if they knew of any other deadly topics that we hadn’t talked about, and after guesses like, “family” and “disabilities” (they are such good kids, SUCH good, sweet kids…), one of them guessed, “sex?” And another guessed, “rape?”

They all burst out laughing. As expected. But I waited, and then I asked them, “Who knows what the definition of rape is?”

As we began to walk down this path of conversation, laughter came in and out, but I held their gaze and I told them, “It’s okay. It’s an uncomfortable topic. People laugh when they feel awkward or uncomfortable. It’s okay. If you need to walk away or take a break, it’s okay.” They all stayed.

We talked about what rape is. We talked about where they hear rape comments (the internet, they said. One boy said, “Everything is inappropriate. It could be a video of a TREE on YouTube, and if you scroll down, there will be racist and sexist jokes and comments about sex.”).

Next we talked about the difference between sex jokes and rape jokes.

“While sex jokes are often “deadly”, meaning that they can have negative consequences depending on who you say them to, rape jokes are ALWAYS “deadly”, no matter who you make them with. And that’s because sex and rape are not the same thing.” I said.

“But they kind of are,” one boy said. “It’s the same actions.”

“I’m glad you brought that up,” I told him. “Does anyone know why people have sex?”

They laughed again.



I told them they were right. “Does anyone know why someone rapes?”

Silence. And then,



I looked at them and said: “A person rapes for one reason: power. When a person rapes someone, it isn’t about sex. It’s not about attractiveness.”

“Wait,” one boy said. “I get it. So even though the physical actions are similar, the intent is different.”

Another boy added, “I guess you never know what someone has been through, which is why you shouldn’t joke about it?”

Yes. Yes. Yes. Kids are so smart.

“Right.” I told them. And then I shared some statistics about sexual abuse and rape. I watched their eyes widen as they looked around the table, counting the number of boys and the number of women. “Wait….” one of them said. “So someone here might have had that happen to them?”

You just never know. You don’t take that chance.

We talked about how damaging it can be for someone to hear a joke about rape. We played out some scenarios, doing Social Behavior Mapping, to look at the effects of a rape comment. They talked about how maybe people would feel unsafe around them, might be worried that they were going to harm them, might think that they disrespected women and maybe wouldn’t want to be around them anymore. These were their ideas. Their thought processes. They got it.

We talked about the kind of people they want to be. We talked about what they can do if they hear a rape comment or joke. How they could be a bystander or not. How they can choose to laugh or not. How if they choose to laugh, what message it sends. They got it.

We could’ve skipped all this. We could’ve sat them down and said, “You will have a serious consequence if I hear one more of those comments.” We could’ve. But what would that have done? The thing is – we have to have these hard conversations. It’s okay if they laugh. It’s okay if they want to walk away. It’s okay. But we have to talk about it, because otherwise they don’t know. Otherwise they don’t have the space to ask the questions. Otherwise they go on doing what they’re doing because nobody has given them a reason or an opportunity to do otherwise.

So we talk. We have the conversations, and over and over again, we talk.

So, I gave a lecture.

Last spring, my dad and I were talking about all of the lectures that he gives at his store that relate to the populations of ADD/ADHD, Autism, Asperger’s. He casually mentioned to me, “You work with these kids all day every day. I can give all of the information about holistic health for this population, about how to balance neurotransmitters, support digestion, and improve regulation, attention, and behavior – but I can’t speak to the clinical aspect, and you can. It would be pretty cool if you spoke with me one day.”

I agreed, and filed it in the back of my brain. This fall, he told me that he was speaking in December, and it was time for me to co-lecture with him. And what the heck, I agreed.

Last Saturday we gave our lecture. While I wasn’t nervous about the public speaking aspect (isn’t it funny how things manifest – I am so nervous before going to a party with 40 people, but it doesn’t faze me at all to stand up in front of those 40 people and speak), I was worried about wasting people’s time. I’m sure we’ve all been to a conference for professional development where the title looks great, but you end up bored, or leaving and thinking, I didn’t learn anything I didn’t already know.

I think that because I live this stuff day in and day out, and have for so many years, it’s such second nature to me – and I forget that’s not the case for everyone. And – it was hugely successful. Parents of our kids came, grandparents of our kids came, adults who were and are our kids came. Most people nodded along, laughed when I attempted to make a joke (which made me want to high-five myself), and asked questions/shared stories both during the question session and privately after.

I was toying with summarizing the lecture here, and I might some day, but for now, here’s the link to my dad’s blog post recap and the (eek!) youtube link, should you strongly desire to watch it.

The point isn’t self-promotion, by any means – so not the kind of person I am. The point is that I did something that for me felt brave. And ended up feeling empowering. I know my stuff. I’m good at my job, I’m good at my work, I can help people understand. And, I’m still learning. Not only did I come away from the experience feeling confident about what I know, I left with that hungry yearning for more knowledge. I love going to conferences, hearing talks, reading books – I want to know as much as I can, because it makes me better at my work, and I love my work.

It’s a really incredible feeling to love what you do.

Things that made me cry today, in no particular order


-Listening to one of our campers play and sing a song she wrote on her ukelele, about how much she loves camp.

-Watching one of our little 6-year-olds silently cry. And when I said, “I’m feeling really sad about camp ending. Are you?” he heavily sighed, wiped his eye, and said, “Yeah, I am.”

-Watching another one of our little 6-year-olds say goodbye to our therapy dog. He knelt down, and whispered in Cadet’s ear, “Bye, Cadet. It’s my last day of camp.” He then told us, “Cadet is so sad it’s the end of camp. Cadet wishes he could come back every day. Cadet is going to miss camp.”

-A thirteen-year-old camper saying, “I don’t want to go to school. I wish camp could be forever.”

-Four nine- through thirteen-year-olds making a conga line in the water during free swim

-Taking one last picture of our backyard this morning, and one last picture of the lake yesterday afternoon.

-The idea that yet another summer is done, in the blink of an eye



I realized that I don’t actually know a really great definition of scripting. So, if anyone else has one, please pass it along. The way I talk about scripting is that it is repeating phrases or words, sometimes from books or movies or t.v. shows, sometimes from social stories, sometimes from what a parent, teacher, or friend has said. Sometimes scripts are used in place of novel language, sometimes they are used because they’re comforting, and sometimes they’re just fun.

Examples of scripting can include:

-The 7th grade boy who, every Friday, says to his friend, “What day is it today?!” and waits for her to reply, “Friday!!” and then giggles and laughs to himself

-The 5th grade boy who will only communicate in metaphors related to the Muppets

-The 6th grade boy who, when another child is acting silly, quotes his something his speech therapist said once, and says, “Ohh, let’s remember to keep our silliness at a level 2!”

-The 4th grade girl who, when anxious, says, “I do not know how to tie my shoes” because on a t.v. show once, the character was anxious about not knowing how to tie his shoes

Now for all of those – they serve a purpose. Scripting is purposeful. It’s not useless, it’s not a detriment to communication. It IS communication. And I got to thinking the other day, how we actually all script. Not in the same way that our autistic kiddos might, but we all have our little rituals and sayings and routines that we say and do and enjoy.


-When my dad used to come home from work when I was little, he would always say, “Hello hello!” and if he didn’t, something felt off

-A parent saying, “Good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite” every night, before leaving their child’s room

-My brother, upon seeing me, saying, “How’s your face?” and me replying, “You know, it’s okay” [which makes no sense, but it makes us smile and it’s our routine, and it’s communication and scripting and who cares]

-My extended family reciting the same stories over and over again because they are funny and comforting and it’s routine and ritual

-Quoting “Friends” episodes with my friends, because they’re hilarious

Think about the phrases, the words, the scripts that you use to communicate with your loved ones. We all do it, to a degree. And it’s okay.

So when a child you are working with is scripting, script with them. Use their interests and scripts to communicate. Figure out what they’re trying to convey. And yes, there are times that they might just be having fun, because scripting is fun. Like my student last year who preferred scripting episodes of “The Simpsons” to doing any work, ever. And in that case, it’s okay to call it what it is. And to say, “First let’s do some work, then we can script at the end of class.” But if a student says something seemingly random, and you’re not sure why, there’s usually a reason and a purpose. It might take time to figure it out, but it’s there. And it can really help you figure out how they’re feeling, what they’re thinking, and what they need from you.

What has your experience been with scripting, either personally or professionally?

A Social Thinking Lesson

Disclaimer: As per usual, this post is completely unedited. And I’m tired. So it is likely hard to follow and doesn’t make sense. And I realize that I say that all the time but this time it REALLY is a mess. Like, for real. And it’s hard topic and post to write about coherently because it involves so much dialogue and inner thoughts. So, apologies in advance. But, hopefully the content and the ideas behind it come through. 


One (of about a billion) things I LOVE about my job is that we deal with anything and everything. When situations arise, as they do with the kids we work with, we problem solve, and address immediately. And we’re lucky to be able to do that, in an environment that solely focuses on stress management, social competency, and self-awareness, without the academic demands. But more on that another time.

So when it came to my attention that staff members had overheard their pre-teen male (ASD) campers making jokes about rape and sex, we acted quick. That day I spoke to my boss, who is a clinician, who spoke to several other colleagues of ours, she got back to me, and I created a Social Thinking lesson based on another lesson from a colleague to do with the groups. The very next day, conversations were had with all of the participants and I did two groups on that topic. 

I don’t tend to talk about specific things I do with clients/students/campers in therapy or groups, but I felt really proud of this lesson and got a lot of good feedback from parents, staff, and most importantly, the campers themselves. So, I will share. 

I’ve done the lesson so far with two groups. To frame this: Both groups are five or six pre-teen or teenagers, one group is all boys and one group is all girls. All of the campers have social cognitive/competency deficits, and most of them have an Aspergers, ASD, or related diagnosis. 

We began with a discussion about what humor is. That was easy for them. I then took out my whiteboard and drew two columns, “Positive” and “Negative”. I explained that there can be positive and negative effects of humor, based on how it’s used, what the topic is, and who the joke is shared with. I was SO impressed at how quickly they thought of things. “Positive” effects that they thought of included: people will like you; make friends; get out of an awkward situation; avoid dealing with something hard; and “Negative” effects included: people think you’re a bully, people not wanting to be around you, getting in trouble with the law, getting suspended or expelled, getting a bad reputation. This was with pretty much no prompting. They had SO much to say. 

After we had flushed out that discussion, I introduced the idea of “deadly jokes.” The concept being, that there are certain topics that if joked about, almost always can have negative effects with friends, family members, teachers, colleagues, etc. I told them there were at least 7, and challenged them to come up with them. The boys group immediately came up with race/religion/nationality and sexual orientation. The girls instantly talked about disorder/disability, mental health, and sex. Overall, between both groups, our list included:race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, sex, disorder/disability, mental health conditions, coworkers/colleagues/teachers/students, physical looks, violent crimes. Again – this was with almost no prompting. 

During the boys group, one of the guys said, “I know those are jokes that certain people would find offensive. But I would never joke about the topic that the person found offensive.” So we had a big conversation about perspective taking and theory of mind – that you can’t KNOW what a person is dealing with, you can’t KNOW that offends a person unless you know them inside and out – and even then, you can’t be sure. I got some rigidity and push-back, so we went through each category. “Can you ALWAYS know someone’s religion based on looking at them? Can you ALWAYS know someone’s sexual orientation by looking at them?” (by the way – that answer that I got was ‘yes, sometimes’ so we had a conversation about stereotypes and how they are often based in fact but can’t be our sole piece of information). We talked about things you can know by looking at a person and things that might offend them that are “invisible,” that you would never know otherwise. They were very interested in the idea that jokes could ultimately involve the police or authorities, and one of them brought up what would happen if you joked about a bomb at an airport. Another boy responded, “But you’d be joking!” So – another conversation about perspective taking, how a bystander or official wouldn’t KNOW you were joking, and there are protocols they must follow.

And then I brought up rape. Because that’s where this all stemmed from. The interesting thing? When I asked, “What about joking about rape?” they ALL vehemently shook their heads and said, “No no no! You can’t joke about that!!” but when I then follow up with, “Okay. Who knows what rape is?” not a single one of them knew. 

And that’s why we do these lessons. The things our kids say – it’s not that we let them get away with it, or make excuses, but so often they just don’t know. Some of the boys admitted they thought rape and sex were the same thing. Some said they heard of it and knew it was bad but didn’t know what it was. So we talked about it. We talked about why you can’t joke about it. And they all left with an understanding.

The girls group was different. One girl brought up how friends joke with each other about things that others couldn’t joke about – like girls saying to each other, “Omg, you’re such a bitch” can be joking and harmless or harmful depending on the relationship. Another girl referenced “Mean Girls” and how they call each other “sluts.” A third girl said that she would be really upset if anyone made a joke about mental health conditions. And a fourth girl shook her head and said she wouldn’t care about that, but if anyone joked about learning disabilities she would rip their head off. Again, a conversation about differences, how one size does not fit all, how each person is different. The girls role-played what they could do if they overheard jokes like those, if they bothered them, or if they didn’t. We talked about how it’s okay to not laugh at a joke, even if everyone else is.

These are things our kids don’t know. These are things that if they aren’t taught, they won’t learn. And saying to them, “We don’t say that!” or “That’s inappropriate!” isn’t enough – because they don’t know WHY. It’s meaningless and unclear to them. We have to clarify. Even if it’s uncomfortable, even if we want to maintain innocence. We have to. For their sake. 



“I love gymnastics,” she says, out of nowhere. “I want to try it again, I quit last year. It was too late at night.”

“I get that,” I say. “I get tired on school nights too. What is your favorite part of gymnastics?”

“The exercise,” she replies. I nod my head. “You like to be moving?”

“I want a flat stomach,” she responds. My heart skips a beat. No no no no. Please, no.

Tread carefully, I remind myself. “Hmmm” is all I can manage. She continues, lifting up her shirt an inch and pinching her stomach. “I do not want this icky fat on me,” she declares.

I think. She’s a wonderful, insightful, unique, verbal, chatty girl. She’s also 15. And a teenage girl. And on the spectrum.

I choose empathy. Even if my words are not processed, I know the feeling will be.

“I get that,” I say. She looks at me. “But you know what? It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if there is fat on your stomach, or anywhere else.”

She is listening.

I continue. “I sometimes have thoughts like that. Many people do. But I remind myself… ”

She interjects, “It does not matter! You are beautiful! It is what is on the inside that matters!”

I know it’s a script. I don’t care. The fact that those are the words she is pulling, in this moment, means that hope and belief and self love are all what she is trying to convey, and convince herself of.

“YES” I answer. And she moves on to a different topic, done with this conversation.

It’s a start.

“What do I tell him?”

The mom of a 7-year-old kiddo who I just started seeing in a social pragmatics group, approached me before group this week.

Glancing at her son, she whispered, “He’s asking why he has to come to this group. What do I tell him?”

Such a common question. The parents I work with want what’s best for their children. Especially when they are in the early stages of an autism-related diagnosis, they are anxious and worried. They don’t want to say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing. They want to protect their child, yet empower him.

Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that while yes, I am a professional, nobody knows their child better than a parent does. So it’s a parents’ decision as to what to say or do. However, I do have my opinions. And I shared them with this mom.

I told her that we will get to talking about it in group, in a few weeks, once we’ve established some sort of cohesion and a sense of safety between the boys and me. I told her that when we do talk about it, we talk about how everyone has things that are easier for them and harder for them. I told her how I always, right off the bat, use the example that I’m really good at reading, but drawing is hard for me. Inevitably, one of the kids always replies, “I’m so good at drawing!!!” and I use that to say, “That’s great! It’s harder for me, but that’s okay.” And that opens up a discussion of everyone sharing what is easy and hard for them.

I explained that our kids are smart. And that even if they don’t know, diagnostically, that they have social-cognitive difficulties, they know it on an intuitive level. They’re aware that it doesn’t come as easy to them. They’ve felt frustration and sadness and confusion. And I firmly believe that it’s validating to know that others recognize it, that it’s okay, and that there are groups and ways to help make it easier.

Mom said, “Yes! That’s what I told him! I said that he’s so smart at things like math and science, but the social stuff can be harder for him sometimes. Is that okay? I don’t want him to feel like I’m pointing out his faults.”

I told her that in my opinion, yes, it’s absolutely okay. There’s a difference between accusing, and pointing out failures, and factually acknowledging strengths and weaknesses. I told her that when we keep it a secret, when we lie to our kids or tell them fakely, with a big smile on our face, “There is nothing wrong with you!! You have so many friends, all the kids like you,” that they know that something is off. It’s validating to hear, “I know this is hard for you. It’s hard for other kids too. It’s not a big deal.”

I always tell my kids and students that even for people who “social stuff” comes easier for, have difficulty here and there. I explain that what’s tricky for me is to sit back and let others talk sometimes.  And that’s okay. And I then ask, “Does that ever happen to anyone else?” And I validate anything they say. And if they say, “Sometimes I get frustrated with friends” or “Sometimes I don’t know what to say in a conversation,” I let them know that I get it. That I feel that way too, sometimes, and that probably other kids do, too.

It’s a big deal in that we want to help our kids get to a level of succeeding, we don’t want to ignore their challenges. But it’s not a big deal in that it’s not a huge secret. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Validate them for our kids. Let them know that we get it, that it’s not a “bad” thing. That we all struggle sometimes. That we’re going to help them as best we can.

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