Sexuality & relationships
Sexuality — the way a person feels about their body and attraction to and intimacy with others — is an important part of human development.
While preteens and teens with autism develop physically on the same timeline as their peers, they often need additional support to manage the challenges that come along with their developing sexuality.
It’s essential that children and teenagers with autism be provided with developmentally appropriate sex education — covering puberty changes, personal hygiene, social skills, contraception, sexual behaviour, and rights and wrongs — adjusted to suit the cognitive abilities of the child. Without it your teen will be exposed to genuine risks, including pregnancy, sexual abuse and accusations of sexual deviancy.
Before we go ahead to sexuality, let’s consider gender identity in the teenage years. It is known that people with autism can be more fluid with their gender identity than their typically developing peers. It is not uncommon for teenagers on the spectrum to explore several options: man, woman, transgender, non-binary or gender fluid.
Teenagers may wish to chat through how they feel about their own gender identity with health professionals and with their family and friends. An open and accepting attitude will help teenagers and young adults come to their own conclusions. They might settle into one gender identity or remain gender fluid throughout life.
Being uncertain about gender identity and not having trusted people to talk these issues through with can be very stressful. Setting up supports to last throughout the teenage years can help alleviate confusion and turmoil with these and other issues.
Many autistic people identify as being gay or lesbian, a greater percentage than in the non-neurodiverse population. As a young teenager develops and l earns about themselves, this may be something they wonder about and explore. Again, having reliable and supportive people to discuss sexual orientation with can make this time of a young person’s life much less stressful.
The Aspect website has a LGBTQIA+ section which has handy resources and articles.
QLife is a LGBTIQ+ peer support organisation offering telephone and webchat support and advice.
Ambitious About Autism in the UK have worked closely with LGBTQIA+ autistic young people to produce articles and visual stories based on their own experiences.
Teenagers with autism, like all teens, need to learn about their body as it develops. They need also to understand what sexual activity means for them as individuals and as part of a relationship. This is a tall order at the best of times.
Autistic teenagers need to have information given to them in a way that they can understand, tailored to their abilities. Whilst schools may help in some way, many families find that they need to ensure that their teen understands what they need to. Sometimes a regular psychologist or counsellor can be very helpful with this.
Some resources that can help teenagers, teachers, families and professionals are
Sex Ed for Self Advocates is a very comprehensive US website which has videos and text explaining sex, sexuality, safety and health. It has been specifically created for the autism community.
Reachout is a more general Australian online mental health service for young people and their families. It has a section on Sex, advice on Romantic Relationships in general, and a broadranging section on Sexuality. There is a simple and sensible guide to Consent.
Making Sense Of Sex by Sarah Attwood or Asperger’s Syndrome and Sexuality: From Adolescence through Adulthood by Isabelle Henault are both excellent books which can help teenagers or their carers to cover all the topics teens need to know.
Sexual health covers many topics, from looking after your body to contraception and safe sex practices. It also covers looking after your mental health within sexual relationships and your physical health too. The resources and books listed above can help with these things.
General books about puberty and sex can be very useful for your teenager, especially those with clear, simple images. It is wise to start talking to your child early about sex and sexuality and always to pitch your information at the best level for your own child.
Most psychologists and counsellors who support teenagers and young adults on the spectrum can support their clients through the complex maze of gender identity and sexuality. There are also some specialist psychologists who offer very specific advice and support, sometimes referred to as sexologists or sex therapists.
Autism Connect, the national autism helpline, may also be able to point you in the direction of professionals.