- Sexuality and gender norms can impact the expectations others have of a neurodiverse child and the child's self-esteem and resiliency.
- Autistic and neurodiverse children need clear and direct guidance; an ongoing conversation with a trusted adult is critical.
- Sexuality education is essential for children's long-term safety, to avoid harassment, and to avoid legal repercussions.
If you have an autistic or neurodiverse child, it’s easy to get caught up in day-to-day challenges like getting going in the morning and navigating the social minefields at school. Because autistic children seem behind socially and emotionally, we often put more delicate topics (like sexuality) on the back burner. We may assume that autistic children are asexual, heterosexual, or too immature to care about sex. That’s understandable, but this can be damaging for their socio-emotional development.
Sexuality Isn’t Just About Sexual Activity
Sex, broadly speaking, pervades our lives from the moment we’re born, including how we’re named and dressed and how our room is decorated. Each of these choices reflects social expectations related to our biological sex at birth. As we grow, expectations of who we are, how we’ll act, and what will interest us are largely based on gender.
Each culture has a set of gender stereotypes and norms. In the United States, girls are frequently expected to be “people pleasers”: a girl who speaks her mind or goes against the norm is often harshly judged. On the other hand, boys are often expected to be stoic. If a boy cries or gets overwhelmed, his classmates might call him names or say that he’s acting “like a girl.” Our environment can be deeply damaging for autistic children, who are teased and misunderstood by peers and adults for their differences. On top of this, violating gender expectations can add another layer of ridicule.
As parents, it’s critical to play an active role in helping autistic children understand what sexuality means. Parents can begin talking about sexuality early on to begin shaping – and challenging – gender expectations. One can look at a display of trucks and say, “People expect boys to play with trucks, but anyone can like trucks, or not like trucks too.” Parents can point out strong women standing up for their ideas, regardless of whether the media is criticizing their pantsuits or hairdos. The more autistic children understand about sexuality and gender roles, the less they’ll feel defined by teasing and humiliation.
Autistic children are detail-oriented and literal; they need clear, direct explanations that avoid vagueness. They need to know about their bodies and the correct names for their parts without feeling a sense of shame. As parents, it’s critical to educate autistic children about what’s considered private and public on our bodies and in spaces, and what can be done in public vs. private spaces. Since social norms change based on the context, parents need to be explicit. For example, it’s okay to talk about “private” body parts at home with a parent, but not necessarily with a friend, whereas it’s not okay to discuss them in public spaces at all – even with a parent, and even if people are talking about other body parts.
Puberty Poses a Challenge
Regardless of their social or emotional readiness, autistic children experience puberty on schedule. The physical and emotional changes during puberty are a lot for any child to handle, but for an autistic child, they’re extremely confusing and unwelcome. Autistic children are often socially isolated, so they don’t have the information (and misinformation) shared among peers to understand what’s happening. Furthermore, they may have little to no idea about the physical changes that will be happening to their bodies or why they’re dealing with mood swings or feelings of attraction. They need a trusted and reliable source of information ahead of time so that when they encounter these changes, they’re slightly less surprising and upsetting.
Autistic children are already struggling with feeling different; if their bodies are developmentally precocious or late, if they lack the social confidence to deal with the reactions of peers to their sexual development, they are even more likely to be victimized. Children need to understand the wide range of what’s normal.
Because autistic children spend less time with their peers, they don’t know what to do when someone has an erection at recess or gets their period unexpectedly during the school day. Generally, unexpected events can trigger negative responses. Appropriate self-care can be challenging. Sensory issues can get in the way of needed personal hygiene and need to be addressed helpfully rather than criticized.
Understanding Gender-Related Differences
Throughout their development, autistic children need an open channel of communication with trusted adults. They need acceptance and information to support developing an authentic sense of identity and to make their feelings (like attraction) clearer. For example, one of my clients (a young man in college) wanted to know how to tell if he wanted to have sex. Likewise, a teenage girl I worked with wondered if she was a trans boy because she didn't like her body. These young adults wanted someone they could talk with for honest answers.
It’s important that these discussions are framed positively and without judgment. It’s critical that there’s no shaming for exploring diverse gender identities, attraction, or expression; many autistic teenagers and young adults already deal with low self-esteem and shame.
Protecting Autistic Children’s Safety
In a recent study, autistic individuals were almost 3 times more likely to have unwanted sexual contact, 2.7 times more likely to experience sexual coercion, and 2.4 times more likely to be raped than the general population. Furthermore, autistic women are sexually abused significantly more frequently than neurotypical women.
Naïve teenagers and young adults may not recognize sexually provocative behavior if they haven’t been educated, and they may miss the social cues of someone’s intentions. Some may feel guilty if someone gaslights them and accuses them of encouraging the encounter; they may not understand that they have the right to refuse consent under any circumstances.
Additionally, young men are at risk of assault, but they are also at risk of accusations of sexual harassment if their attention is unwanted. Harassment is defined by the feelings of the person who feels harassed. For example, a young man might watch a young woman, turn up at her classroom door and say he wants to go out with her – which could be acceptable if she liked him. However, if the young woman didn’t like him and found him “creepy,” she could accuse him of harassment for the same behavior. A client of mine was accused of harassment for repeatedly texting a young woman who was a crush. He didn’t understand that no response meant she didn’t want to engage with him.
We know how to define and teach what “consent” means – we teach teens to ask before any kind of touching takes place. It’s impossible to tell a young man he can’t look at anyone, but we can give him guidance for how long a glance might be and what behavior signals "stop." At the same time, we need to educate our autistic teens to avoid behaviors like following someone or contacting someone repeatedly who isn’t reciprocating the behavior. So much of flirting is nuance, and we need to help autistic teens and young adults understand as much as possible.
Young adults who haven’t had sexuality education and haven’t felt comfortable talking about sexual identity or preference might turn to the internet for information, advice, or images to see what interests them. For example, Nick Dubin co-wrote a book about his experience as a cautionary tale. Because a teacher Nick admired called homosexuality sinful, he never discussed his homosexual feelings with anyone – even when asked by his parents and therapist. As a young man, he turned to the internet to research images to find out what aroused him. In his detailed search, he downloaded child pornography, unaware that this was illegal. He was arrested by the FBI and prosecuted. Although experts on autism testified that he presented no risk and was not looking at the images for sexual gratification, he was convicted and registered on the list of sex offenders.
Education Is the Path Forward
It’s vital to educate neurotypicals, and particularly those in positions of authority (like teachers, police, administrators, and prosecutors), to understand the social missteps of an autistic individual. There is a need for a wider understanding of neurodiversity in general, but the total burden should not be on those with autism. The best way to help autistic kids with their development and safety is for parents and other trusted adults to have ongoing, honest conversations with them about sexuality and encourage safe exploration.
Brown-Lavoie, S., Viecili, M, & Weiss, J (2014) Sexual Knowledge and Victimization in Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 44(9) 2185-2196 doe: 10.1007/s10803-014-2093-y
Attwood, Henault, H & Durbin, N (2014) The Autism Spectrum, Sexuality and the Law. Philadelphia, PA: Jessica Kingsley Publishers