Most parents are understandably anxious about the thought of their child eventually dating and becoming sexually active. That anxiety may be even greater for the parents of a child with autism. What’s a parent to do? The goal is to support every young person in healthy, optimal human development, including social and sexual development. The following basic components of education and evaluation may be helpful.
1: Check yourself!
This is the most important step. What are your own views about sex and partnering? What were you taught as a child? What are your attitudes towards dating, gender identity, and sexual orientation? Chances are that --for better or worse-- you will convey to your child all the attitudes and lessons (or lack thereof) that your parents shared with you. We tend to do what we know. It is never too late to educate yourself, and to confront any biases you may have that could get in the way of helping your child to develop in a healthy way both socially and physically. You will find the most credible information from researchers and sexuality educators, as social media can provide distorted or inaccurate information.
2: Where are you in the process of educating your child about sex?
The key to providing effective sexuality education is to start early, with very simple explanations geared to the ability level of your child. Keeping a positive and upbeat attitude is helpful in conveying that this is a normal and healthy part of being a human. Anatomically correct dolls are available, and there are quite a few good children’s picture books that depict not only animals, but humans, describing body parts and using the correct names for body parts. Using pet names (ex: saying “your WeeWee” instead of “your penis”) can be confusing to a child with autism who does better with concrete and specific terms. Stay away from metaphors and myths like “the birds and bees” or “a stork brought you,” which are likewise confusing.
If you provide your child with accurate information, without shame, you normalize having open communication about these topics. Thus, your child will be better equipped to report any inappropriate behavior to which they may have been subjected. Hint: If you find it uncomfortable to talk about sex, try practicing your anatomy- and sex-specific vocabulary out loud with your spouse or a trusted friend. The more you use the correct words, the more relaxed you will be and the easier it becomes! Planned Parenthood has a number of resources to help with this challenge.1
Sex education is offered in many schools, but not all schools, and it is important to remember that school personnel often lack training on how to present this information, especially to children with special needs. While it is fine to have your child participate in a school program, you will also want to make time to discuss this at home, to get a sense of what your child understands and what supplemental information you might need to provide. Some parents prefer to provide sex education themselves at home, but research shows that those who refuse to have their child participate in sex ed at school, also tend to withhold that information at home. Lack of timely and accurate information tends to result in negative outcomes.
3: What is normal, and when?
Many autistic children have a significant delay or disinterest in forming social relationships, and this must be taken into account. Social development may lag while physical development surges ahead. The natural progression of physical development includes hormonal changes becoming evident usually between ages 10 and 14, and autism doesn’t change that. Curiosity about changes in the body, and about sexual urges, is very normal. Young females will begin to menstruate, young males will begin to have erections and ejaculate (often in their sleep). Children who have not been prepared with adequate information will find these changes pretty scary! As these physical transformations occur, this is a good time to discuss masturbation with your child. While masturbation is also normal, you may need to make the point that this is a private activity.
Accurate information about physical and sexual development is essential. If your child is in an inclusive classroom at school, they may be hearing things from peers about sex and masturbation that are inaccurate, even harmful. Video games may have distorted and suggestive, even violent, sexual content. Make sure to keep an open door to discuss any questions your child may have. If you don’t feel you can have such conversations comfortably, this might be a good time to engage the services of a qualified therapist or sex educator.
4: What about dating and relationships?
Neurologist Oliver Sacks described an artistically gifted autistic client entering his teen years:
Stephen’s interest in girls, his fantasies of them, all seem very normal, very adolescent in a way, and yet they are marked by a childishness, a naivete that reflects his deep lack of human and social knowledge. It is difficult to imagine him dating, much less enjoying a deep personal or sexual relationship. These things, one suspects, may never be possible for him.2
The when, where, and how of dating is highly unique to the individual. Have an open conversation about dating with your child. Some persons with autism have little or no interest in an ongoing romantic relationship; others are very interested. Dating interest may be driven by the hormones that are making all those changes in their bodies. Some individuals may find social relationships to be more “transactional” -- i.e., simply physical. You might object to this, but physically healthy individuals have normal sexual urges and will likely seek the opportunity to act on those impulses. This is also a time to make sure your child understands that “No means no.” If they approach another person sexually, they must respect that person’s boundaries. Some research suggests that persons with autism may exhibit a greater degree of inappropriate sexual behaviors (hypersexuality3 in particular) and may require targeted sexuality education.4
5: Check for understanding, and ability to consent.
Safety is key. Persons with autism are often more naïve, and thus more vulnerable, than their non-autistic peers. Vulnerability may lead to danger, as unfortunately there are both peers and adults who may take advantage of your child at any age. “Consent” means that the individual is capable of understanding what sexual interaction consists of, and is able to freely say “Yes” or “No.” Consent includes comprehension of the risks of sexual activity; that includes knowing how sexually transmitted infections occur, and how pregnancy occurs. More freedom can be given to an individual who is capable of consent. Safer-sex alternatives should be spelled out very clearly to persons who are ready to engage in sex.
By definition in most states, minors are not legally able to consent to sex. But that doesn’t stop them! Multiple studies show that the average age of first sexual intercourse is age 16. Additional protections are codified in the law for vulnerable adults, and an adult with autism is included in those protections. However, laws rarely prevent the abuse of vulnerable persons; laws provide consequences for perpetrators who are caught. Arming your child with accurate information, and supervision (without over-protection), is best to prevent sexual abuse.
6: What if my child exhibits signs of being GLBTQI?
Statistics suggest that the proportion of persons who are gay, lesbian, or bisexual, vary from 5% of the total population, to 15%. Some research suggests that persons on the autism spectrum may show greater variability in self-definition; i.e., they don’t restrict themselves to the usual “binary” of male or female, gay or straight -- their out-of-the-box innovative thinking allows them to be themselves in the realm of gender and sexual expression.5 Additional research shows that sexual orientation can be very fluid in many individuals; however, gender identity (whether you believe you’re a man or a woman) tends to be more fixed and often becomes evident in childhood. It is very common for adolescent or older children to experiment with same-sex attraction, but not all do. Hopefully you have already let them know that they are perfect just as they are, and will be loved just as they are, whether heterosexual or GLBTQI!
If you have followed the above recommendations about sex education and evaluating ability to consent, your child will be reasonably well-prepared to make decisions about dating and sexual behaviors. Every individual is unique, and you know your child best. A more detailed article on tips and helpful practices for parents can be found at the Autism Research Institute website.6 If you have more questions or concerns, speak with your doctor, therapist, or seek a qualified sexuality educator.
2. Oliver Sacks, 1995, An Anthropologist on Mars. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. Page 236.
3. Schöttle D, Briken P, Tüscher O, Turner D. Sexuality in autism: hypersexual and paraphilic behavior in women and men with high-functioning autism spectrum disorder. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2017;19(4):381-393. doi:10.31887/DCNS.2017.19.4/dschoettle
4. Stokes M and Kaur D, High-functioning autism and sexuality: A parental perspective, First Published August 1, 2005 Research Article https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361305053258