Sex Education for Teens with Autism

Autistic teens need sex education! Here's how to provide it.

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Very few programs exist to teach young people with autism about sex and sexuality, and because people with autism are often unaware of social cues and peer expectations, clear, direct education is often critical.

Teaching About Staying Safe from Sexual Abuse

Says Dr. Peter Gerhardt, an expert in adults with autism and the Director of the Organization for Autism Research, "Autistic children and teens need to know they should lock the bathroom stall, and they need to learn how to do it.

Sometimes parents think it's safer if they take their child into the bathroom with them, but the challenge with that is that the person most likely to cause abuse is someone the child knows, not someone the child doesn't know. And if you don't teach your child to close and lock the door in a public bathroom, he's too open to abuse."

Unlike most youngsters, teens on the autism spectrum are unlikely to learn about sexual norms from peers or even from teachers. So it's up to parents to pick up the slack. Some things that almost anyone on the autism spectrum can learn about include:

  • circles of comfort (who may touch you or ask you to undress)
  • good touch/bad touch
  • bathroom and locker room independence
  • reporting of past events such an inappropriate touch

For parents of young people with autism, there's a second level of difficulty: teaching even the most basic social aspects of sexuality. Even masturbation has a social component.

Teens need to know when and where it's okay to touch themselves, and they need to understand the absolute need for privacy.

Teaching About Sexuality: Tips for Parents

How can parents begin to think about this issue? Says Dr. Gerhardt, "for kids with autism going to middle school, if we're not pre-teaching, they'll get a very skewed vision of human sexuality.

Right now, there's no curriculum that truly addresses the issues in a functional way, and there's little research on the topic. With sexuality, you're not just teaching information. You're also teaching values and social competence."

Dr. Gerhardt recommends that parents:

  1. Think ahead - be proactive ("pre-teach")
  2. Be concrete (talk about the penis or vagina, not the birds and bees)
  3. Be consistent and repetitive about sexual safety
  4. Find someone of the same gender to teach the basics of safety and hygiene
  5. Be sure to address the social dimension of sexuality
  6. Strongly reinforce for all appropriate behavior
  7. Redirect inappropriate behaviors. For example, if a child is likely to masturbate in class or in public, give him something to carry or hold, etc.

References:

Interview with Dr. Peter Gerhardt, January, 2007

Attwood and Henault. "Sexual Profile of Adults with Asperger's Syndrome: The need for understanding, support, and education." [Presentation] Inaugural World Autism Congress, Melbourne Australia, 2002.

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