Sex Ed and Autism

rachel-loftin-aartsBy Rachel Loftin, PhD

Although it is a crucial topic in health care, people are often reluctant to talk about the sex education needs of people with autism spectrum disorder.

While typically developing people learn a lot about sexuality and romantic relationships from their peers, teens with ASD are much less likely to have friends who talk about these topics. Many people with ASD do not pick up on unwritten rules for how to behave in social situations, and sexually charged interactions are particularly challenging to understand.

The social differences in ASD can limit the amount and quality of the sexuality information acquired and can make it challenging to understand the complex dynamics of intimate relationships.

When people with ASD unwittingly break social rules, they can put themselves at risk for victimization or may be misconstrued as sexually deviant or even predatory. Unfortunately, these situations sometimes result in legal action. Even when problem behaviors are not illegal, inappropriate sexual behaviors can limit employment and inclusion opportunities with individuals with ASD.

So what can be done to prevent inappropriate sexual behavior and enrich quality of intimate relationships? Sexual education seems to be the best option. However, existing sex ed programs in schools may not meet the needs of people with ASD.

For many individuals with ASD, even basic information must be taught in an explicit and clear fashion. Information in the usual sexuality education programs makes assumptions about prior knowledge. This is clearly demonstrated in my clinical work with adolescents with ASD, for example. Repeatedly, I have had to teach the most basic concepts of anatomy and function to very bright young people who were assumed by their parents and teachers to already know the information.

Concepts relating to sexuality can be particularly difficult to teach to people with ASD because it is necessary to pare complicated concepts, such as sexual orientation, down to the concrete points that a young person with ASD requires to understand.

Autism-specific sexuality education is an important part of programming for people with ASD. The AARTS Center at Rush is pleased to offer a sexuality education program.

Rachel Loftin, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and clinical director of the AARTS Center at Rush.

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