The parents of autistic children want them to be able to do everything that their neurotypical peers can. They want them to make friends, enjoy school, participate in extracurriculars et all. However, when it comes to their autistic adolescents on the precipice of puberty, about to undergo sexual maturity, most parents start to worry.
After all, if it is difficult to have the ‘birds and bees’ talk with neurotypical teenagers, it is even more complicated in the case of autistic teenagers. But talking to autistic adolescents about sex and sexuality is all the more important. Apart from ensuring their safety and wellbeing, it also empowers them to navigate the complex social constructs of sex and romantic relationships with a better understanding of the world around them.
Here’s a handy guide to help parents have the ‘talk’ in a way that is comfortable for both them and their autistic children:
Sexual development and sexuality
Sexual development and sexuality go way beyond sex – it also encompasses intimacy and attraction, respectful romantic relationships, and sexual orientation. It is important to remember that autistic teenagers experience sexual development just like neurotypical teenagers. However, they might find comprehending sexual feelings difficult in both themselves and others. That is why it is a good idea to keep the window open for an open conversation, to clear their doubts in the future as well.
You can help them by breaking down these complex feelings into thoughts and bodily sensations. For example, if they find themselves thinking about someone a lot, or they get sexually aroused around them – it might be because they’re attracted to them. Use visual cues and social stories to educate them about crushes and attraction. This will help them make better sense of their feelings.
Appropriate and inappropriate behaviours
Just like they might find understanding sexual feelings difficult, they might find expressing these feelings tough too. Additionally, if they struggle with social cues, they might end up behaving in a manner that is inappropriate or find themselves in risky situations and unhealthy relationships.
Repeatedly talking to them about socially acceptable behaviour, personal boundaries, the concept of personal space (both theirs and that of their peers) is crucial. Parents can use common social interactions to put their point across and set some clear rules about what is okay and what is not. It is also advisable to run certain scenarios by them and tell them the appropriate response or reactions for them. For example, if they like someone and invite them for a date but if the said person says no, it is not okay to pursue it any further. It is also okay to clearly turn down the advances of others if they are not interested.
Contraceptives and sexual health
While sexual relationships are a completely normal part of growing up, it is important to discuss the importance of safe sexual encounters with autistic adolescents. Talk to them about the importance of consent and how it goes both ways. They can get sexually involved with someone if they want but if they are not comfortable with it, they should not do it just because their peers are doing it. Similarly, they should not expect others to do anything that they have not expressed explicit consent for.
Safe sex also means using contraceptives to prevent sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies. Educate them about condoms and other methods of contraception that they can rely on. At the same time, make sure they are aware of how to maintain sexual health hygiene by keeping their genitals clean and seeking medical help in case they need it.
Even if this seems like an uncomfortable topic to broach, parents must provide their autistic adolescents with the right tools to understand sexual development before they become sexually active. In case you feel that seeking help from an expert will do them good, talk to their therapist or their school counsellor. Lastly, make sure you give them a sensitive, reliable, and judgement-free environment to thrive and become capable of having meaningful relationships as adults.