A comprehensive guide for creating dialogue about relationships, sexual maturity, and consent with your autistic child.
Relationships are tricky for everyone, especially those with autism. There are many questions such as: How does love feel? How does a real friend act? How does a lover act? How do relationships really look? Was I flirting? Was he flirting? What does sexual attraction feel like?
Many on the spectrum are confused and have limited insight into these areas. They need help understanding how to relate to others and how to have healthy relationships. The myth that autistic individuals are not interested in romantic relationships is simply not true; the truth is that they may need a little more guidance with communication, emotional response, and how to respond to (appropriate) intimate touch.
The following discussion topics may help:
- Understanding their emotions and those of others
- What do they feel for different types of people they meet?
- How do they act with different types of people they meet?
- What is flirting, dating, or sexual harassment?
- What is masturbation and intimacy?
- What protection do they need so they do not get pregnant?
Activities for interacting with others:
Circles of Relationships
- On a piece of paper make five circles. Put your child with autism in the center circle. Then draw four more circles around. Have them list their families and close friends in the first circle. In the second circle, they list casual friends, classmates, workmates, and acquaintances. In the third circle, they list their doctors, teachers, police, and store clerks. The fourth circle is for strangers
Next, hold discussions:
- Family and close friends
Ask your child…
- “What are some of the feelings you have for your family and close friends?” (Love, trust, enjoying each other’s company, dependability). Make a list of the feelings
- “How do you act around your family and close friends?” Some examples: We share personal thoughts and feelings. We trust them. We speak with them when we’re upset
Now your discussion moves to, how do you touch the people in the first circle?
- Share some ideas with your child: handshakes, hugs, brief hugs, kisses on the cheek, hand holding, and hand on shoulder
Then make sure they understand that even with people in the first circle, all touch must be consensual. This means both people agree to and want the touch; both people say YES.
- Casual friends
Next, talk about circle two: casual friends.
- “What are some feelings you have for casual friends and groups you are in?”
- “Who are these friends?” Make a list of friends and feelings they have for them. (Maybe trust, enjoying each other’s company, having fun)
- “How do you act around casual friends and groups?”
Perhaps you are friendly but not friends yet. Remind your child that you might not share personal information and/or personal feelings with just casual friends. You might feel comfortable around them but not close.
Once again, have a discussion on how we touch the people in the second circle (emphasizing consent). For example, friends may give handshakes, high fives, or fist bumps. If someone in the second circle doesn’t want to give you a handshake, high five, or fist bump, you do not do it.
Let them know that a person in the second circle might move to the first circle. Their feelings can change as they get to know someone better.
Your discussion moves to the third circle, which is about professionals we engage with (doctors, teachers, etc.).
- “What are some feelings you have for professionals who help you?” Your child might say friendliness and appreciation
Next, discuss how they might act around helping professionals:
- Discuss that you are friendly with them but not friends with them. Discuss that you might share personal information and feelings with a doctor, teacher, social worker, or police officer. They might feel comfortable around them but not close to them
- They may express that they are happy to have helpers like doctors, teachers, and police officers
Move your discussion to how they might touch the people in the third circle. Handshakes and waving are appropriate.
- If someone in the third circle doesn’t want to give you a handshake, you don’t!
- Remember, all touch must be consensual. This means both people agree to and want the touch
- Explore the possibility of someone moving from the third circle to the first or second circle
- Remind them that a person can change as you get to know them better
- Sometimes teachers get to know you really well and may give a hug good-bye
Now, it’s time to talk about the fourth circle— the stranger circle. Have your child think of places where they see strangers, such as the bus, subway, street, or store.
- Discuss with them that some strangers may be friendly, but it is important not to hang around with them
- Other strangers may make them feel uncomfortable. When that happens, they must get away from them quickly
- Make sure you ask them if this has ever happened to them. Has a stranger ever made them feel really uncomfortable?
Next, talk to them about how we act around strangers—we are polite, but cautious.
- Talk about how strangers are different from other people. Some are nice, and some are not nice. Emphasize that we don’t accept a ride in strangers’ cars. The same applies to accepting gifts. Talk about the reasons behind not accepting rides and gifts
Then, talk about the idea of touch with the people in the fourth circle.
- Let your child know that there is no touching
- When you are introduced to a stranger by someone you know and trust, then you can shake the stranger’s hand (but only if you want to)
- Remind them that you don’t have to be mean to strangers, unless they make you feel uncomfortable
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Activities for understanding emotions
The next conversation you might have could be around dating and relationship skills. Those on the spectrum often find the world of emotions to be overwhelming and puzzling. They have problems labeling and recognizing their emotions and understanding the emotions of others.
- Identifying and labeling emotions in photos
Using the camera or phone, take photos of people displaying emotions, both positive and negative. Print out the photos. Label them and discuss these emotions. Have your child recall incidents when they have felt such emotions. They could put the photos in an album with emotions labeled to refer to in the future.
- Identifying and labeling nonverbal clues
With the photos above, ask them to look for nonverbal clues in the facial expressions or body language that help them label an emotion. Have them list the nonverbal clues.
- Using role-play to identify and label emotions and nonverbal clues
Role-playing is a great tool to help high-functioning kiddos recognize their emotions and the emotions of others. Take turns role-playing and guessing each emotion. Have each person freeze halfway through his/her role-playing turn so others can point out facial expression, tone of voice, and nonverbal clues.
- Brainstorm as many different feelings (above) as they can
Group similar feelings (for example, angry, mad, furious, etc.). Draw a four-columned table on another sheet of paper. Label the tops of the columns with these terms: Feeling, Situations, Physical Cues, and Body Language. Take each feeling or group of feelings and put them in the chart.
Other topics: sexual maturity
Every person needs to learn practical information and skills related to puberty, body changes, different types of relationships, modesty, and appropriate displays of public behavior. It is important not to assume what your child knows or will pick up instinctively, or how well they comprehend what they are hearing and seeing. Because of the high risk of sexual abuse in autism, it is important they be taught how to take care of their bathing and hygiene needs themselves.
Talk about puberty before their body starts developing. Otherwise, a girl may think she is bleeding to death when she has her first period and a boy may think he is “wetting the bed” when he has his first wet dream.
They may not be ready for some information about intimacy and sexuality, but they will need to have some sex education to reduce risk of behaving inappropriately or being sexually abused. Teens and adults who work or engage in the general community will be hearing their peers discuss the subject and need to be aware of what it all means.
Discussing sexual maturity with your autistic child
How and when you decide to discuss different topics will depend on how much understanding the young teen or adult has. Explain to the person as if they understand, then back it up with visual and auditory input in the form of social stories.
If necessary, do a task analysis (step-by-step routine) of sexual activities or use a word or picture schedule for hygiene activities.
Getting down to the real talk
Provide reassurance about feelings and wanting to be close to someone, but emphasize that any expression of feelings has to be consensual. Talk about appropriate and safe ways in which building of a sexual relationship occurs. Sexual feelings are private, but can be spoken about to your partner.
Here are some ways you might want to explain things to your child:
- On masturbation
This is sometimes called “playing with yourself”. This is when you touch your own genitals. Sometimes two people touch each other and that is called mutual masturbation.
- On sexual Intercourse
Sexual intercourse usually follows kissing and touching and cuddling (but you can also kiss and cuddle without then having intercourse). The man fits his penis into the woman’s vagina, sliding it in and out. After a while, sperm might travel from the penis into the woman’s vagina and uterus. It might then fertilize an egg and a pregnancy can occur.
For sex to be legal and enjoyable, both people have to want to have it, and there should never be pressure to have it. Sexual relationships should involve good communication between the couple. They need to be able to talk to each other and let each other know what they like and enjoy and feel.
It is important to make sure protection is used (rubber or oral contraceptives) so that intercourse doesn’t produce a child until the couple is ready. Sometimes people do not want to have sex; this is called celibacy. Virginity is when the woman or man has never had sexual intercourse. First-time sex can sometimes be uncomfortable; some bleeding could occur.
Some extra information you could share
- The age of consent is usually 16, but differs in certain places around the world.
- Different families/cultures and religions have different thoughts about sex; it’s always a good idea to get to know the people in your child’s life
- Sex is private
- Sex shouldn’t ever be forced upon anyone
- Discussion about sexual abuse and rape
- Sexuality: Your Sons and Daughters with Intellectual Disabilities by Karin Melberg Schwier and Dave Hingburger
- The Growing Up Book for Boys: What Boys on the Autism Spectrum Need to Know! by Davida Hartman
- The Growing Up Guide for Girls: What Girls on the Autism Spectrum Need to Know!, by Davida Hartman
- Making Sense of Sex: A Forthright Guide to Puberty, Sex and Relationships for People with Asperger’s Syndrome by Sarah Attwood
- The Aspie Girl’s Guide to Being Safe with Men: The Unwritten Safety Rules No-one is Telling You by Debi Brown
- Middle School: The Stuff Nobody Tells You About: A Teenage Girl with ASD Shares Her Experiences by Haley Moss, a teenage girl with autism. Also, by the same girl a few years later… A Freshman Survival Guide for College Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders: The Stuff Nobody Tells You About!
- Life on the Autism Spectrum: A Guide for Girls and Women by Karen McKibbin
- Women and Girls with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Understanding Life Experiences from Early Childhood to Old Age by Sarah Hendrickx
- Been There. Done That. Try This! An Aspie’s Guide to Life on Earth provides advice from several accomplished people who have Asperger’s
- Making Sense out of Sex: Sarah Attwood, A guide to puberty, sex, relationships for people with Asperger
- Adolescent issues: Jackson, L. (2002) Freaks, Geeks and Asperger Syndrome. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers
- Sex and Relationships young adults: Edmonds, G and Worton, D (2005) The Asperger Love Guide. London: Paul Chapman Publishers
- Edmonds, G. and Worton, D (2006) The Asperger Social Guide. London: Paul Chapman Publishing
- Heinrichs, R. (2003) Perfect Targets: Practical Solutions for Surviving the Social World. Kansas: Autism Asperger Publishing Company
- Henault, I. (2006) Asperger’s Syndrome and Sexuality. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishing Company
This article was featured in Issue 126 – Romantic Relationships and Autism