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Teaching About Sexuality to children with Autism


The topic of sexuality can be an uncomfortable one for some parents, children, or even both, to talk about especially in an Asian context.

Teaching About Sexuality

As a child continues to learn, grow, and develop, there will come a point in time where every parent would have to have “the talk” with them. The topic of sexuality can be an uncomfortable one for some parents, children, or even both, to talk about especially in an Asian context. However, no matter how difficult, it is necessary to educate children on it for their safety and the betterment of their quality of life. Unfortunately, educating children with ASD on sexuality has been largely neglected as parents are often unsure of how to teach about sexuality or hold the belief that their child is either unaware of their sexuality or is uninterested in intimacy.


First and foremost, is it even necessary to do so? Absolutely! Children with ASD mature physically and sexually according to the normal developmental stages and hence, providing them with the same education on sexuality as is done with neurotypical children is crucial. Nevertheless, we acknowledge that teaching about sexuality is made complicated by certain language and communication problems, and social deficits that a child with ASD might have. With that, we are here to share with you when and what you should teach your child about sexuality, and how you can go about doing it in more comprehensible ways!


What is sexuality education?

Contrary to popular belief, sexuality education is not only limited to the topic of intercourse but instead a wide range of topics. Namely:


1. Privacy

  • Private body parts, public and private behaviours and conversations, and privacy (eg. undressing only in private)

2. Sexual abuse prevention and consent

  • Appropriate and inappropriate touch, how to say no to someone’s sexual advances, the importance of not pressuring others into sex, and how to report sexual abuse

3. Puberty and reproduction

  • Hygiene (washing of genitals), physiological changes during and beyond puberty, menstruation and wet dreams, and how the reproductive systems work

4. Love and relationships

  • The differences between love and infatuation, how to ask someone out on a date, how to deal with rejection, the importance of reciprocity and respect, how to make the decision about whether to have sex, dating and marriage

5. Reproductive rights and responsibilities

  • Abstinence, contraceptives, abortion, consequences of getting pregnant or getting someone pregnant

6. Sexual health and prevention

  • Masturbation, efficacy of the different methods of birth control, symptoms of STDs and how to prevent it, how to use a condom

7. Sexual orientation and gender identity


When should I start teaching my child about sexuality?

As humans, we generally do not like change or being caught off guard, and this resistance to change is even more prevalent among those with ASD. Thus, starting early will help your child be more prepared for what is to come. The first lessons on sexuality should begin in a child’s pre-teen years and cover the topics of sexual anatomy and puberty so that your child is aware of the changes they would observe and experience when they go through puberty.


People with ASD are more hyper aware of their bodies, and coupled with the increased need for sensory stimulation, they tend to start masturbating at a younger age. It is crucial that you do not condemn your child but teach them the appropriate time and place to do so. For example, to only masturbate in their bedroom or bathroom, and teach them how to and that they should keep the door locked whenever doing so. You may potentially have to teach your child how to masturbate properly to prevent them from injuring themselves from using inappropriate objects or means to satisfy their urges.


During adolescence is when you should slowly introduce the other areas of sexuality education to your child. Starting with relationships and dating as it is typically during that age where children start to explore the idea of relationships. Followed by sexual orientation and gender identity, the topic of sex and the precautions and consequences that come with it, and even the laws surrounding it like underaged sex. Of course, these steps will vary depending on the level of functioning and understanding your child has.

How to make it easier for my child to understand?

As mentioned, teaching about sexuality to children with ASD is made more complicated due to problems and deficits in some areas. Nonetheless, there are some additional tools you can use to enable you to bring across the information more intelligibly to your child. Anatomically correct dolls are helpful in teaching your child about sexual anatomy and the physical changes they would observe during puberty. When teaching about sexual anatomy, it is advised to use the actual terms used to describe human genitalia to avoid confusions and miscommunication. Visual aids such as pictures and videos will also be useful in helping your child learn about sexuality instead of solely communicating through words.


Lastly, you should teach your child through “What if?” scenarios. It is insufficient to just teach them the different terms and definitions of the various topics under sexuality. For example, as important as it is for a girl to learn about menstruation or for a boy to learn about erections, it is even more important for them to know what to do when it happens. This can be done by asking them “What if?” questions and working together with them to brainstorm on possible solutions. This will improve your child’s learning on sexuality education as well as increase their preparedness for situations that may arise in the future.


References

Cambridge, P., Carnaby, S. & McCarthy, M. (2003). Responding to masturbation in supporting sexuality and challenging behaviour in services for people with learning disabilities, Journal of Learning Disabilities, 7(3): 251-266


Holmes, L. G., & Himle, M. B. (2014). Brief report: Parent–child sexuality communication and autism spectrum disorders. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 44(11), 2964-2970.


Kalyva, E. (2010). Teachers’ perspectives of the sexuality of children with autism spectrum disorders, Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 4: 433-437.


Organization for Autism Research. (n.d.). Sex Ed. https://researchautism.org/sex-ed-guide/


Planned Parenthood. (n.d.). Sexuality Education for Youth on the Autism Spectrum.

https://www.plannedparenthood.org/planned-parenthood-massachusetts/local-training-education/parent-buzz-newsletter/parent-buzz-e-newsletters/sexuality-education-youth-autism-spectrum


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