This is a post by one of my Spring 2013 interns, Rebecca. Find more posts from her and other current and former interns under the Intern Corner section. – Shanna
Sex, sexuality and sexual safety are important topics of discussion. Addressing it in our own lives is hard enough, let alone talking about it with our partner, friends, or children. And when an individual has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) this conversation may seem harder, even impossible. How do we address these complex and challenging topics? And really, is it all that important?
Yes. Yes yes yes. It is that important.
But before we get to the how, let us address the how come.
Lisa Mitchell is a counselor who specializes in autism. She argues that the following points are the top reasons why it is vital to provide individuals with autism accurate and useful information concerning sexuality and sexual safety.
First, ASD individuals often have limited opportunities for socialization and normalizing social sexual experiences. The few opportunities they do have are complicated by social skills deficits associated with autism. Secondly, many individuals with ASD do not have even basic knowledge about sexuality, and low reading ability hinders the chance to learn from written materials and other media such as the internet. Thirdly, individuals with ASD are people and, like all people, have the right to learn all they are able so they may become a sexually healthy person. Individuals on the spectrum have the same hormones and urges as their peers deserve the information necessary to make healthy decisions. Fourth, individuals on the spectrum need additional information to protect themselves from sexual abuse, HIV/AIDS, and STDs. This is particularly challenging for many individuals with ASD who have low self-esteem that leads them to be willing to engage in risky behavior in order to be accepted by their peers. Fifth, many individuals with ASD do not know when and to whom they may ask questions about sexuality. This issue can be eliminated merely by making yourself available as a resource.
I would like to expand on the fact that, simply put, individuals on the spectrum have sexualities, too. Many individuals on the spectrum, along with most individuals with intellectual differences, are not considered sexual beings by our society. This is false. Individuals with autism are sexual beings. However, many individuals on the spectrum have cognitive abilities that are incongruent with their sexual development. This incongruence often leads to another common misconception: sex education is inappropriate for individuals with autism. Instead, sex education needs to be tailored to best support each individual. Let’s be real – navigating the sexual world is hard no matter what who you are. As parents, friends, cousins, and caregivers to an individual with autism, it is vital we recognize that individuals on the spectrum have a right to sexual education so they may live a healthy and satisfying sexual life. whatever that may be.
Individuals on the also spectrum need quality information so they may lead a life free of sexual assault and abuse, which is the second point I would like to expand on. As individuals who know and love someone with autism, it is imperative we understand that individuals with neurological differences are extremely vulnerable to sexual abuse. 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys suffer from sexual abuse before the age of 18. And sexual violence does not cease when an individual is 18. The U.S. Department of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Survey reports that every 2 minutes a person is sexually victimized in the U.S. For individuals with intellectual differences the numbers are even higher. Although no specific numbers exist for rates of sexual abuse among individuals with autism specifically, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that individuals with any type of cognitive, intellectual, and/or developmental difference are 3.44 times more likely to be a victim of abuse (i.e. neglect, physical abuse, or sexual abuse) than their typically developing peers. But the numbers don’t have to be this high. With proper sexual education many individuals with autism can learn tools to protect themselves from sexual abuse and communicate any potential or previous harm inflicted, giving others in their lives the ability to take action.
ASD is a spectrum that covers a wide range of abilities. This means the types of appropriate emotional and/or sexual relationships will vary dramatically for each person. The one consistent aspect of autism is that no one size fits all, and this concept applies to sexual education as well. In turn, each individual needs personalized instruction that is appropriate for their abilities.
Every person deserves positive and healthy sex education and sexual safety information regardless of their neurology so they may enjoy a healthy and abuse free sexual life.