For parents of neurotypical children and neurodivergent children alike, some things are universal. We all want our kids to be happy, healthy, and loved, and we all worry—a lot.
One of the biggest concerns we may have for our kids can be how they will handle romantic relationships, sex, and the social aspects of dating in general. There is much to think about, but adding autism into the discussion takes it up a notch.
In this article we will take a few minutes to study autism and sexuality. We will find out what we as parents need to know about supporting our kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as they navigate their sexual development, and all that it brings with it.
E – expression
In the grand scheme of things, children, adolescents, and young adults with autism spectrum disorders, need to know the same basic things about sex as their neurotypical peers. Most often, it’s how they process, implement, and express themselves that can be different. It is important to educate our kids.
Relationship education is the base of understanding for:
- social skills
- sexual well being
Sexual education is the foundation of safety for:
- promoting sexual health
- prevention of sexual abuse and sexual assault
- protection from sexually transmitted infections
- sexual function
In order for us to educate our children, we must first educate ourselves. In her paper, titled Sexuality and Adolescents with Autism, Rebecca Koller writes: “Education for caregivers of individuals with autism regarding issues of adolescence and self-pleasuring may help alleviate the anxiety of individuals with autism caused by misinformation or the absence of information. Such education, along with information regarding sexual abuse, should be included in a proactive approach to sexuality training for individuals with autism.”
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A child with intellectual disability is going to process the information they need differently, and the most effective way to help them with that is to give them the information at their level.
Social stories are a great way to educate. Hypothetical situations used to illustrate real situations provide an opportunity to walk through topics and allow our child to practice relationship skills in a safe, low pressure way. Sexual education can start with these.
D – desire
According to an article published in the National Library of Medicine, titled Brief Report: Asexuality and Young Women on the Autism Spectrum, studies show that a higher percentage of people with autism spectrum disorders identify as asexual. The presence of sexual attraction will clue us in to what direction we can take with our kids.
As we build our relationship with them, we can learn about what they feel and think about sexual things, and help guide them along the way.
U – understand
Information unlocks many doors. Being misunderstood is one of the largest obstacles for our kids on the spectrum. If we as parents strive to be a constant source of understanding in our kids’ lives, our relationship with them will strengthen, and their ability to take on the world will increase.
We need to help our kids understand that their feelings are normal, and the most appropriate ways to express them. Their understanding of others feelings, desires, and appropriate expression is of utmost importance as well.
How does autism affect intimacy?
In Webster’s dictionary (2022) the word “intimate” is defined as: marked by a warm friendship developing through long association. Our kids’ first intimate relationship is with us; we are the ones they are familiar with.
As they get older that circle widens and more people are allowed in. As they grow and develop, the kind of intimacy with each person in their circle changes.
This can be difficult for children with autism. In order for them to understand appropriate intimacy with others, they need to build their social skills.
Addressing sexuality begins with setting clear and distinct boundaries about what intimacy is, and how it relates to sex and relationships. Then, we need to understand how autism can affect intimacy, and help our child comprehend and prepare for how that can show up in the interactions with others they are close to. They need to know what is appropriate and what isn’t, and from whom.
Helping our child understand sexuality socially, it is important to discuss the way sexuality is expressed. In the interest of educating ourselves first, let’s find out how autism can affect sexual behavior.
As parents we will bring views and emotional “baggage” with us from our own lives that will affect our understanding of our kids. Some of us want to do things opposite to how our parents raised us, others want to preserve the “right” way we learned from our elders. Either way, it is imperative that we see our children clearly and strive to learn from them through a fresh set of eyes, ears, and hearts.
Sexual behavior can be terrifying to address for parents, especially if those behaviors come up at very inopportune times with our kids. Learning as much as we can about sexual behavior and how they can be influenced by autism can really help prepare us to deal with them as they come. Addressing behavior should be done with a calm and understanding approach.
- inappropriate touching
If these behaviors occur at inappropriate times or places because of a lack of understanding of social situations, it can pose a problem for our kids. Teaching them about their bodies early on can go a long way to helping our children know when, where, and with whom they may express themselves sexually.
Koller writes: “Education regarding sexual abuse should be a component of responsible sexuality education. Increased vulnerability among children with disabilities relates to their inability to understand or communicate what has happened or what will happen.
“Two of the most important issues to address in the area of social-sexual relationships are how to teach appropriate behavior and how to balance risk and opportunity. Walcott (1997) reports that ‘without proper education in the areas of sex, health, and physical education, people with moderate and severe disabilities risk exposure to sexual exploitation, poor health, abuse, and neglect.'”
The aspects of romantic relationships are just one of the complexities that our kids with autism may struggle with socially. There is some overlap in the educational needs.For example, teaching our kids about body language is helpful since they may not pick up on those cues on their own. Understanding body language at a young age will help them detect new body language signals or recognize negative ones early, just because they are different to what they already know. This can help protect them from people who may not have their best interest at heart.
Gender identity, sexual orientation, and sexual identity
In a study called: Gender identity and Sexual Orientation in Autism Spectrum Disorder, Rita George and Mark A Stokes comment that “children are generally cognizant of their gender between the ages 18 months and 3 years, and by the beginning of school years, most children will have achieved a sense of their gender identity and a certain degree of gender constancy, at which time children begin to realize that gender is a permanent state that cannot be altered by a change of clothing or activity”.
The same study revealed an increase in the likelihood of individuals with ASD to experience gender identity issues. “When compared to typically developing individuals, autistic individuals reported a higher number of gender-dysphoric traits. Rates of gender-dysphoria in the group with autism spectrum disorder were significantly higher than reported in the wider population. Mediation analysis found that the relationship between autistic traits and sexual orientation was mediated by gender-dysphoric traits.
“Results suggest that autism spectrum disorder presents a unique experience to the formation and consolidation of gender identity, and for some autistic individuals, their sexual orientation relates to their gender experience. It is important that clinicians working with autism spectrum disorder are aware of the gender-diversity in this population so that the necessary support for healthy socio-sexual functioning and mental well-being is provided.”
Children know from such an early age who they are, what they like, and though they may mask their feelings because of social pressures, it doesn’t change who they are.
As parents, looking at the data we can see that we need to be ready to support our child with autism if they come out as part of the LGBTQ+ community, and to recognize the signs, and so that we have a chance to know before they do.
Our treatment of them can either reinforce, or counteract society’s views of them. If they are loved, supported, and educated with us, they will know when to recognize safe people to have relationships with. They will know what healthy looks and feels like, and they will be confident in who they are.
Their mental health is just as important as their sexual health. Safety is the goal. Knowing the increased chances of social misunderstandings, communication is imperative.
C – communicate
As we impart the knowledge we gain to our child, and our relationship with them grows, we can watch them begin to navigate their own relationships in the world. They can learn to communicate with others they are interested in and build healthy intimate relationships.
A – allow
In the world in which we live, so much of what we have discussed above is controversial. We may not agree with the conclusions that our kids come to, the relationships they wish to pursue, or who they know themselves to be. Accepting them for who they are and who they love does not always mean endorsement.
Many parents choose to disassociate from their children when they find out they are not who they thought they were, whether that is their sexual orientation, gender identity, or their sexual choices. This can leave the young adult vulnerable and unsupported.
The goal for parents should be to make sure their child knows what they need to know, is capable of making their own decisions, and to love and accept them regardless. You can disagree without disengaging.
We can allow our children to be who they are, love them, and keep the lines of communication open. We should encourage free and open discussion, foster social interactions, and facilitate relationships with children their same age–mentally, not just in years. An emphasis on gender diversity, as well as children of their own gender identity is important.
T – timeline
You may be thinking, this is too much information to throw at a kid, and I would agree. However, sex education can begin very early. Age appropriate information about their bodies, body parts, and functions, who they belong to, friendships, body language of friends, family, and strangers can all be collected with our kids. All of this being before our kids experience being sexually attracted, sexual activity, sexual experiences, so that when those things do occur, they are ready—even if we are not.
I – Inspiration
How we handle the topics that come up around sexual matters with our kids will inspire them. If we are calm, matter of fact, informative, and set a good example ourselves, they will be inspired to do the same. Their view of themselves, their sexuality, and human connection starts with what they observe in us.
O – Outsource
There are programs to help children and young adults with ASD learn what they need to know socially and how to find romance safely. I want to share with you two resources, both are courses or services run by speakers from the Autism Parenting Summit.
Michael Clark runs: Amazing Skills for Kids and Adults
Jeremy Hamburgh runs: My Best Social Life
N – Nuance
Sexuality is a spectrum. It encompasses much more than the act of intercourse. Understanding your child’s sexualality is important, as it is as unique as they are. EDUCATION is key.
Acceptance and understanding start at home and carry throughout life. Your child needs to know they are loved, and worthy of love. They can grow to be confident individuals who understand their sexuality, express it appropriately, and engage in healthy relationships with others.
Bush, H. H., Williams, L. W., & Mendes, E. (2021). Brief Report: Asexuality and Young Women on the Autism Spectrum. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 51(2), 725–733. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-020-04565-6
Rebecca Koller (2000). Sexuality and Adolescents with Autism. Sexuality and Disability, Vol. 18, No. 2, https://abafit.coursewebs.com/Courses/BEHP1096/Autism%20and%20Sexuality.pdf
George, R., & Stokes, M. A. (2018). Gender identity and sexual orientation in autism spectrum disorder. Autism, 22(8), 970–982. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361317714587