It is 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. However, when kids with ASD start to get older and are in the midst of puberty and beyond, some parents worry. They may wonder how their children will navigate the complex social realities of adolescence and adult life. While parents might not be comfortable with the thought of their kids with ASD considering intimacy and sex, it is important for parents to recognize that sexual development is inevitable. All kids grow up, whether they have ASD or not. Many adolescents and young adults on the autism spectrum want to be in romantic relationships. They want to date, experience intimacy and some may want to get married. In order to make healthier, safer and better-informed decisions related to sexuality, everyone has a right to positive and effective communication and education about this important topic.
Parents can tailor sexuality and relationship education to the specific needs of children on the spectrum and help their kids make good social choices, accept themselves, manage isolation and connect with others in meaningful ways. When teaching about puberty, body changes, reproduction and reproductive anatomy, parents can use the same teaching strategies they have used to teach children other life skills. Some of these strategies may include visual schedules or check off lists, videos, facts in books, anatomically correct dolls, pictures of what is happening to their bodies, stories to predict what might occur, or specific terminology.* Sexual safety and social issues related to sexuality are important for all parents to consider as the primary sexuality educators of their children. Because people with autism are often unaware of social cues and peer expectations, clear, direct education is critical.
Here are some specific tips for parents to think about in the sexual health education of their child:
- Be proactive. It is important to teach your pre-teen about puberty before their body starts developing so they are not caught unaware and frightened by the changes that occur.
- Teach about bodies, reproduction, reproductive anatomy and risk reduction.
- Teach children how to close and lock the bathroom door, use public restrooms and clean and shower themselves.
- Teach your child about appropriate and inappropriate touching, as well as behaviors that can be done in public and those that are only done in private.
- Sexuality talks with adolescents who have problems with eye contact may work better if you talk while you are walking side-by-side, preparing a meal together or driving in the car.
- Enlist the support of a sympathetic young person who is the same age as your child and can help them with language, behavior, and fashion styles and what to do and not do in their peer environment.
- Do “What if?” scenarios with your child. For example, “What if your period starts at school?” or “What if your get an erection in front of the class?” Together, work out possible solutions to these scenarios.
- Be aware of any infatuation your child may have with another person. Help them to understand that crushes are normal and okay, just as long as they are not pursued to the point of harassment of another person. Teach your child that healthy, mature relationships are reciprocal and respectful.*
- *References: Sexuality Resource Center for Parents: Autism Spectrum Disorders
Useful Resources for Parents
Autism-Asperger’s and Sexuality: Puberty and Beyond. Jerry and Mary Newport. Future Horizons, 2002. Written for adolescents and young adults with autism spectrum disorders by a husband and wife team who are both on the autism spectrum.
Freaks, Geeks, & Asperger Syndrome: A User Guide to Adolescence. Luke Jackson, Athenaeum Press, 2002. Written by an adolescent who is on the autism spectrum explaining how he handles his life
The New Social Story Book: Over 150 Social Stories that Teach Everyday Social Skills to Children with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome and their Peers. Future Horizons. C. Gray. 2010.
Taking Care of Myself. A Healthy Hygiene, Puberty and Personal Curriculum for Young People with Autism. Mary Wrobel. Future Horizons, 2003. This is a combination of social stories and activities aimed specifically to address the health and safety needs of people on the autism spectrum. It can also be used with other individuals with disabilities.
Wrong Planet is the web community designed for individuals (and parents / professionals of those) with Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, ADHD, PDDs, and other neurological differences. Provides a discussion forum, where members communicate with each other, an article section, with exclusive articles and how-to guides, a blogging feature, and more.
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