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Tailoring sex education to teens and adults on the autism spectrum

It is very common for parents raising kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to want their children and teens to do everything that their peers are doing. Parents hope their children will have friends, enjoy school, and participate in sports, music and other extracurricular activities. After all, part of childhood is having rich and diverse experiences with family and friends.

However, when kids with ASD start to get older, parents tend to panic. How will their children get along in the community? How will they make it through high school socially? Suddenly, parents don’t want their kids doing what the typical kids are doing. Whereas most children have been encouraged to fully participate in life--despite their challenges--this can change when puberty hits. However, while parents might not be comfortable about the thought of their kids with ASD considering intimacy and sex, this time is approaching, ready or not. The key is for parents to be fully prepared.


Do teach your child about sex, bodies, reproduction and self-care

Too many parents assume that their child’s school will take care of educating kids about sex education. Parents also believe that their teens on the autism spectrum are too socially awkward to ever need a “birds and bees” discussion. Unfortunately, schools do not always provide adequate or age-appropriate sexuality education for children with disabilities--and even socially awkward individuals have hormones.

Your children need to hear from you--the people they trust the most--about this very delicate topic. Everyone should know the actual names for body parts, the differences between men and women, the basic facts about reproduction and how to take care of one’s body.

Do educate teens and young adults about the social side of sexuality

For kids with ASD, many aspects of dating and intimacy are difficult to grasp. For example, the phrase, “to go out,” is very confusing and can mean to go outside or to date.

We teach teens with ASD to ask for permission before touching someone. As a result, they go to the mall, see a sexy person, ask for permission and wind up getting arrested. This is why teaching teens about the social aspects of sexuality is so important. List the steps involved in getting to know somebody, decode social language and use social narratives. Enlist the help of similar-age siblings, cousins or friends whenever possible. This is helpful because teenagers are more open to hearing things from peers, and peers are more in tune with today’s social world than parents. Another teaching strategy is watching TV and movies with your teen and pointing out what is happening on the screen.

Do explain that sex is not necessary

Most individuals on the autism spectrum are very literal thinkers. If you tell your children that “people have sex,” they may think sex is required or expected. It is best to explain that you are giving them information, so they can make the best choice for themselves. Explain that an alternate option that is just as valid is to focus on friends, your family or your career. While it is possible for individuals to have fulfilling lives without intimate relationships or sex, this concept may be too abstract for young adults with ASD to deduce on their own.

Do create a loneliness reduction plan

Most teenagers, young adults and adults on the autism spectrum are extremely isolated, which creates a unique vulnerability. When individuals are lonely and have had few successful social experiences, they tend to make bad social decisions. Too many adults on the autism spectrum get into abusive, unstable relationships, or they wind up in sexual situations they are not ready for due to loneliness.

Make a list of special interests, hobbies, activities, community events, volunteering, classes, workshops and clubs--and get your teen involved. There’s something for everyone, and not every person is social in the same way or to the same degree. The advantage of an activity based on a specific interest is that you don’t have to be a great conversationalist because everyone is there to talk about the topic at hand. And you don’t have to be a social butterfly because attendees came for the activity.

Having a loneliness reduction plan will allow young adults on the autism spectrum to build a bank of successful social endeavors, practice social skills, get out of the house, and make friends or connect with others in meaningful ways.

Do allow your son or daughter on the autism spectrum to be “regular” teenagers

If your 16-year-old teenager with ASD dyes his hair bright aqua, he is actually doing something developmentally appropriate for his age. But often, parents react differently to teens with disabilities. Why do parents hold young adults with disabilities to a different standard? Teenagers and young adults with ASD work hard to discover themselves, and along the way, it is likely they will make mistakes, get fired from their job or date someone you can’t stand--anything and everything that regular teenagers do. After all, they have a right to grow up, too.


Do not assume individuals on the autism spectrum are heterosexual

Extremely preliminary research suggests there may be higher rates of alternative sexuality identities and alternative gender identities on the autism spectrum. Society is hesitant to openly discuss these issues, but sharing this information can be a matter of life and death for youth with ASD. For example, young people with ASD are often told that holding hands is a safe dating activity, especially if they are not ready for more. In addition, holding hands is usually tolerable for those with tactile sensitivities. However, if we don’t mention that holding hands in public can be unsafe with someone of the same gender, gay youth on the autism spectrum may not be able to pick up this crucial safety fact just by observing society or knowing about homophobia.

Do not forget to educate kids about values

Popular TV shows celebrate extramarital affairs, dating reality shows reduce love to a commodity and sitcom families solve their problems in 30 minutes. But real life doesn’t work this way. People who engage in intimacy with others are expected to be honest. Love is not a contest on a tropical island, and daily life in a relationship or family is hard work. For individuals on the autism spectrum, nuances and subtleties of social life can be very difficult to deconstruct. Mass media messages may be appealing in their simplicity or excitement level. So don’t be shy. Tell your teen or young adult with ASD what life is really about. Share your thoughts about what you see and hear in the media. Help your teens shape their thoughts and show them how to make their own choices.

Do not overlook the fact that not everyone is built for a married suburban existence

In our society, the ideal life includes marriage, children and a house in the suburbs. While our civilization would collapse without a wide variety of people and lifestyles, your teens may feel this pressure, especially if they want to fit in or they see their siblings getting married and settling down.

Help your teens stick up for the type of life that will work best for them. Self-awareness is a crucial component of this process. Find role models as early as possible. Explore different kinds of lives from an early age. Use a loneliness reduction plan. Be proactive in developing alternatives that will work best. For example, a young adult who wants children in his or her life, but is not ready for parenthood, can volunteer as a big brother or big sister, or pursue a career that involves children in some capacity.

Do not believe that an interest in sex and intimacy is correlated with the level of autism

There are adults on the autism spectrum who use iPads to communicate and are in committed relationships, and there are adults on the autism spectrum with PhDs who are not ready to date. The bottom line is that each individual is unique, which is why preparing for this area of life is vital for all individuals with ASD--regardless of what we think will--or should--happen in our teen’s life.

Do not ignore how kids with ASD learn and think

Parents must tailor sexuality and relationship education to the specific needs of their children on the autism spectrum. They also need to give kids the space and time to grow and find their way, in the same way that parents let their kids figure out the soccer field and math class when they were little.

Basic reproduction and sexuality topics are just the beginning. Because of the “autistic way” of thinking and learning, teens with ASD also need information and support to make good social choices, to accept themselves and what they need, to reduce isolation, to connect to others in meaningful ways and to meet their social goals.

Jumping cartoon

When kids with ASD start to get older, parents panic. While they used to want their kids to do the same things as their peers, suddenly they no longer want them doing what the “normal” kids are doing. Parents are sincerely concerned how their young adults with ASD will navigate the complex social realities of adult life.

But all kids grow up--whether they have ASD or not. Consequently, parents must tailor sexuality and relationship education to the specific needs of children on the spectrum and help their kids to make good social choices, accept themselves, manage isolation and connect with others in meaningful ways.

More expert advice about Caring for Teens and Adults with Disabilities

Photo Credits: David and Roxanne by Haleyface via Flickr; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

Zosia Zaks, M.Ed., C.R.C.Certified Rehabilitation Counselor

Zosia Zaks, M.Ed., C.R.C., counsels adults on the autism spectrum and their families on issues related to work, community life, and transition to independence. He also works as a program facilitator at Towson University's Hussman Center for Adul...

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