Autism and Sexuality

Couple embracing

Autism and sexuality is a complex issue because many autistic people experience difficulties in social interaction, emotional response and communication. The concepts of sexual expression and social etiquette can be challenging for some people with autism. Find out how autism affects sexuality, and discover ways to overcome obstacles.

Deal with Autism and Sexuality Early

Just as early intervention is effective in treating autism, early training in sexuality can be beneficial. You can begin by teaching social skills that relate to issues like personal space and appropriate touching. It is important to teach autistic children about personal safety to protect them from becoming victims of sexual abuse. Teenagers and adults with autism need to learn about the social aspects of sexuality to prevent inappropriate sexual behavior and to encourage healthy attitudes toward sex.

Teaching Autistic Children about Personal Safety

All children, including autistic children, need to learn about personal safety to stay safe from pedophiles. Since children with autism do not pick up on social cues or read another's emotions well, they are quite vulnerable. When a child with autism reaches a developmental level when she can learn some degree of basic life skills, such as general hygiene, potty training and getting dressed, she should also learn about personal space, and she can learn how to recognize the difference between appropriate and inappropriate touching. The lessons about personal safety should include the following:

  • Who can assist in personal tasks such as hygiene issues, dressing and going to the bathroom
  • The areas of the body and which areas no one should touch except the child or an approved caregiver who is properly assisting the child with hygiene or dressing
  • The difference between appropriate touching and inappropriate touching
  • Bathroom safety - Locking the bathroom door and not letting others inside the stall except approved caregivers
  • Locker room safety - If the child will be changing in a locker room, teach him about personal space and how to safely change clothes
  • Telling parents or a teacher if anyone attempts inappropriate touching

A therapist can help you teach an autistic child about personal safety, especially in cases of severe autism where a child is nonverbal and it may be difficult to tell if she understands the concepts.

Dealing with Puberty and Sex Education

When a children reach puberty and adolescence, they may start to express themselves sexually. Puberty and adolescence are particularly challenging because many changes in the body occur, and they can be difficult for a child on the spectrum to understand. Appropriate sexual behaviors and social rules for courtship can be confusing for some people on the spectrum. Difficulty with impulse control mixed with a lack of social understanding can lead to inappropriate sexual behaviors.

Stories about appropriate sexual behavior and courtship can help teach adolescents about sex education. Applied behavioral analysis (ABA) techniques can help deal with inappropriate sexual behavior, such as masturbating in public. Specific approaches that deal with inappropriate sexual behaviors should be part of the teenager's treatment plan.

Ask your child's therapist if there are any sex education programs for autistic children in your area. If not, the therapist can still help you talk to your child about these issues. It is important for an adolescent with autism to learn about the social aspects of sexuality as well as practical sexual safety.

Adults with Autism and Sexuality

A number of adults with autism have problems understanding and satisfying their sexual needs. They may have trouble figuring out appropriate sexual expression, and connecting with another person in a relationship can be difficult. However, since autism is a spectrum disorder with various levels of impairment ranging from mild to severe, the potential sexual expression problems vary greatly.

A high functioning person with an autism spectrum disorder may be able to sustain a romantic relationship with a healthy sex life with no issues. Yet, a person with moderate to severe autism may not be able to interact with another person sexually, or sustain a romantic relationship. Another person with autism might engage in sexual behavior as a sensory response without understanding its social context. Additionally, a person with autism may show little interest in sexuality.

Romantic Relationships and Adults with Autism

Many people with autism spectrum disorders lead healthy sex lives and sustain romantic relationships. Many get married and have children. Intervention is may be necessary for a couple dealing with autism to overcome communication and social skill problems that could potentially undermine a relationship. Couples may also want to participate in support groups for couples dealing with relationship issues. With the right treatment and an understanding partner, a person with autism can find romantic happiness and fulfillment.

Autism and Sexuality