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5 Ways to Start Sex Education for Children with Autism

All children grow up. No diagnosis stops puberty in its tracks. It’s crucial to start sex education for autistic children early, as they experience the same teenage changes and emotions as everyone else. Unfortunately, harmful stereotypes often prevent them from getting the support they need for healthy development and safety.

Here’s what you should know:

  • Individuals with disabilities face a much higher risk of assault compared to those without disabilities.
  • A staggering 83% of women with disabilities will experience sexual assault in their lifetimes.
  • Key reasons for this include a lack of sexual education and social isolation.

From my experience as a special educator and behavior analyst, I’ve seen that every individual longs for personal connections and understanding. However, they rarely receive proper training in social and sexual behaviors.

Here are five ways to start sex education early, based on research and my own experience. Don’t wait for puberty – begin these conversations and teachings now to support their healthy development.

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1. Teach them the names of body parts

Understanding body awareness and autonomy starts with knowing one’s own body. Teaching anatomy helps children learn about private parts, which is essential for understanding appropriate public and private behaviors.

Discover what your child already knows. Use pictures, dolls, or their own body to point out and label each part. Identify gaps in their knowledge and use these as a teaching foundation.

Always use the correct scientific terms for body parts, such as “breasts” or “penis.” It’s important for children to learn these terms from a young age, as it helps them communicate clearly and reduces misunderstandings.

Avoid using childish terms, as they can cause adults to dismiss important warnings about abuse or unsafe behavior.

When changing or dressing your child, take the opportunity to name their private parts. Model the correct language by saying things like, “This is my penis.” This reinforces their understanding and comfort with the correct terminology.

2. Teach them about private and public parts of the body

As you teach body parts, also teach the difference between private and public parts. Private parts are those that belong only to the individual.

A simple way to explain this is: that what is covered is private, and what is uncovered is public. For instance, brushing hair is a public activity, but putting on underwear is not.

Create privacy routines at home and stick to them. When helping your child in the bathroom, close the door. If possible, leave the room while your child uses the toilet or turn around to show that toileting is a private activity.

Establish a way for your child to communicate the need for privacy. This could be a phrase like “I need privacy,” or a specific picture, symbol, or object that works best for them.

Ensure that all adults who interact with your child are trained on how your child requests privacy to reinforce this important concept.

3. Give warnings, listen to responses

In special education, teachers and parents often rush to prompt, teach, or help immediately. While this can speed up skill acquisition or routine completion, it might also make your child more accepting of someone touching them without permission.

Instead, use warnings. Before intervening, take a moment to explain what you’re going to do. For example, say, “I’d like to help you zip up your sweater, can I do that?” or “I’m going to touch your hand, is that okay?”

Mom zipping up her son's jacket https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/autism-sex-education/

Wait for cues like a nod, a verbal “yes,” or a pause. Pay attention to your child’s cues as you proceed, and if they show any signs of discomfort, such as pulling away, shaking their head, or saying “no,” stop if it’s not a health or safety issue.

Model language that emphasizes choice. Instead of saying, “Give grandma a hug,” offer options like, “You can give grandma a wave, high-five, or a hug if you want.” Never force your child to give hugs, kisses, or any physical contact if they don’t want to.

If your child seems uncomfortable with physical contact, respond by pulling away and using language like, “It seems you don’t want a hug right now; that’s okay,” or “Thank you for letting me know you needed space.” While grandma might feel disappointed, your child will learn the importance of giving and receiving consent.

4. Remember that context matters

Too often, inappropriate actions, such as autistic children touching private parts in public, lead to the start of sexual education. Instead of waiting for such behaviors to occur, it’s important to explicitly teach the concept of privacy and appropriate contexts early on.

Most activities happen in specific places: eating at the table, sleeping in the bedroom, and using the toilet in the bathroom. Teaching children where things occur can help prevent inappropriate sexualized behavior and potential assault.

Here’s how to start teaching context:

  • Define private spaces: Make it clear that changing clothes should always happen in the bathroom or bedroom. Be specific about who can help your child get dressed.
  • Health and hygiene: Explain that touching private parts should only occur for health or hygiene reasons, such as in a bathroom or medical facility with specific personnel. Use examples and role-playing to help your child understand who can touch them, what is appropriate, and where it should happen.

For example:

  • Appropriate: A doctor in a doctor’s office touches your genitals during a medical exam.
  • Inappropriate: A doctor touches your genitals in a car.

Using visual supports and clear examples can significantly aid in teaching these concepts and ensuring your child understands the difference between public and private behaviors.

5. Encourage more openness and less shame

You may feel uncomfortable discussing sex education with your autistic child. While the discomfort is understandable, your child needs this information and will find other ways to access it if not through you.

A study investigating the experiences of relationships and sexuality of individuals with disabilities found that a majority of their participants received information on sex and romance through television shows and magazines.


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Establish open communication by answering questions and offering information. If your child feels certain topics are off-limits, they will become less likely to come to you for answers or help.

It’s okay to feel overwhelmed by sex education in autism

Sometimes, the thought of teaching your autistic child sex ed seems scary and overwhelming. That’s completely okay. Get help. You don’t need to do this alone. There are sexual educators and classes specifically designed for individuals with ASD.

It is natural to feel overwhelmed when thinking about how to guide your child in sexual education and safety. You can do this, and there are tools out there to help you. Remember, sexual education is not a luxury for individuals with ASD; it is a necessity.

This article was featured in Issue 113 – Transitioning to Adulthood

FAQs

Q: Is asexuality linked to autism?

A: Asexuality is not inherently linked to autism, though some individuals with autism may identify as asexual. It’s important to recognize that people with autism, like everyone else, can have a wide range of sexual orientations and preferences.

Q: How do you teach an autistic child about inappropriate touching?

A: Teach an autistic child about inappropriate touching by clearly defining private spaces and contexts where touching is appropriate, using specific examples to illustrate these concepts. Use visual aids and consistent reinforcement to ensure they understand the difference between public and private behaviors.

Q: How do you teach an autistic child about private parts?

A: Teach an autistic child about private parts by explaining that touching them is only appropriate in private spaces like the bathroom or bedroom for health or hygiene reasons, and only with specific trusted individuals, like a parent or doctor. Use clear examples, visual aids, and role-playing to reinforce these concepts.

References:

Couwenhoven, T. (2007). Teaching children with Down syndrome about their bodies, boundaries, and sexuality: A guide for parents and professionals. Bethesda: Woodbine House.

Gerhardt, P., & Schulman, R. (2020, August 04). News & Events. Retrieved August 11, 2020, from https://researchautism.org/sexuality-education-is-a-necessity/ 

Kelly, G., Crowley, C. & Hamilton, C. (2009). Rights, sexuality, and relationships in Ireland: “It’d be nice to be kind of trusted.” British Journal of Learning Disabilities, 37(4)4, 308-315.

Nienow, S. (n.d.). Seven Steps to Teaching Children Body Autonomy. Retrieved August 06, 2020, from https://www.rchsd.org/2019/12/seven-steps-to-teaching-children-body-autonomy/ 

Schwartz, R. J., & Robertson, R. E. (2019). A review of research on sexual education for adults with intellectual disabilities. Career Development and Transition for Exceptional Individuals, 42(3), 148-157.

Shapiro, J. (2018, January 09). For Some With Intellectual Disabilities, Ending Abuse Starts With Sex Ed. Retrieved August 06, 2020, from https://www.npr.org/2018/01/09/572929725/for-some-with-intellectual-disabilities-ending-abuse-starts-with-sex-ed 

Cheak-Zamora, N.C., Teti, M., Maurer-Batjer, A. et al. Sexual and Relationship Interest, Knowledge, and Experiences Among Adolescents and Young Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Arch Sex Behav 48, 2605–2615 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-019-1445-2  

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