Developing adult bodies and sexual interests and feelings is normal progression for all young people, but those on the autism spectrum, it may be particularly difficult. Read on for six top tips on how to approach the subject of sex and relationships with young people on the spectrum.
By Lynne Moxon, Consultant Psychologist at Education and Services for People with Autism (ESPA)
Sexuality can be a very positive experience and the majority of autistic people have sexual feelings, needs and behaviour. Hatton and Tector (2010) interviewed young autistic people at school, many of whom said they would have benefited from being taught more about how relationships work when they were younger.
Providing helpful education at the right time is crucial for making sure autistic people are prepared for this aspect of adult life.
1. Don't ignore it
People who have reached the legal age of consent to sexual activity, which is 16 in the UK for both homo and heterosexual sex, may choose to be sexually active. It is not possible to stop young people from being sexually active by barring privacy, not discussing sex or switching the TV to a different channel.
Lack of privacy at home may mean that young people are sexually active in public places, which may mean it is then unsafe and rushed and if witnessed can lead to arrest. Not knowing what sex is can lead to abuse or a young person saying that they have had sex when they have just been kissed or hugged.
2. Explain that relationships come before sex
Building social relationships by making friends and establishing intimate partners is a key developmental life stage for young adults. Social development is largely experiential, and young autistic people generally have fewer opportunities for social interactions than their typically developing peers. The basis of relationships is friendship; how can you develop an intimate relationship if you have never had a friend?
Adolescents become sexually mature approximately four to five years before they reach the emotional maturity to make key decisions. They are growing up in a visual culture in which TV, internet, gaming, cinema, music and pornography often transmit messages indicating that sexual relationships are common, accepted, and at times expected behaviour. Therefore, it needs to be clear to the young person that sex is not compulsory.
3. Consider where and when to begin
The teaching which underpins sex and relationship education should start as early as possible, at the same time as we approach toilet training – for instance learning about parts of the body, touch and undressing.
If your child shows an awareness of how older people are physically different to them, this is a good starting point for discussion. Noticing a beard, breasts or underarm hair is a very tangible, visual sign for an autistic person and can present a clear difference to themselves.
Puberty, or the start of adolescence, is now taking place earlier than for previous generations, and is earlier in girls than boys at an average age of ten years. Both young men and women on the autism spectrum may find the mood swings and physical changes at this stage very hard to manage.
4. Plan what to cover
Young autistic people need specialized education. All sex education programmes need to encompass health issues, personal safety and social rules to enhance social communication and understanding. Adult forms of affection and closeness need to be developed. As a minimum, all individuals need to learn the basics of how body parts work and how to stay safe.
For young autistic people who also have intellectual disabilities, the content may need to centre on masturbation and establishing a sexual identity on their own. It is important that a young person is very aware of body changes, privacy rules, personal space and distance, relationships and consent.
5. Make boundaries clear
Boundaries of body (private parts), of space (private places), and of topic (private subjects) need to be made clear to young autistic people. Parents may not feel ready to begin teaching boundaries because they don’t recognise that their child is growing towards adulthood. But to deprive a person of boundaries is to leave them clueless as to what sorts of behaviour would be acceptable as an adult.
Most of the incidents which lead to trouble for young autistic people are 'boundary violations' brought on by the impulse of a moment. Touching other people or kissing without consent, for example, is against the law. Inappropriate social networking, mobile phone and internet use can lead to legal intervention if rules are not
Make it clear to a young person that the adults supporting them understand they may want more privacy as they grow up and their bodies change. Explain that in order to do this, you will respect closed doors and that they should too.
6. Build up confidence
Helping young people to feel positive about themselves and their abilities is a crucial aspect of supporting them through puberty.
Wearing age-appropriate clothing and developing an individual style, of whatever kind, can help to develop resilience and make it easier to cope with the ups and downs of moving into adulthood. Many young autistic people need directives, rather than suggestions about clothing in order to protect them from bullying.
However, this will be a judgment call for a supporting adult based on the individual. Developing your own limits and judgment is always important.
Recommended books and resources
For more information about sex education, go to www.autism.org.uk/sexeducation