For those with autism, the feelings and experiences of sexuality that come with adulthood can often prove more difficult to navigate than for their neurotypical peers.
Contrary to longstanding stereotypes about autism and sexuality, autistic individuals can and do experience the full spectrum of human sexuality. Just because some individuals with autism have trouble with certain aspects of sexuality does not mean that they do not experience sexual feelings or should not receive sexuality education.
It is crucial for human services professionals to understand current research on autism and sexuality and how to support clients with autism about this topic.
Why it can be difficult for those with autism to express sexuality
For some individuals with autism, one of the harder parts of sexuality is learning and identifying social cues. There are a lot of different ways in which their neurotypical peers may express sexual feelings without recourse to literal language. This can include innuendo, flirtatious language, or non-verbal cues.
For many with autism, these social cues can be difficult, if not impossible, to unravel. In fact, individuals with autism have reported to researchers that they misinterpret flirtatious behavior as a friendly interaction or have misunderstood non-verbal signs of disinterest and taken them for signs of flirting.
Social cues are not the only aspect of sexuality that prove difficult. Many individuals with autism have reported physical sensations different from their neurotypical peers. Known as sensory dysregulation, it can present various ways. For example, some people will experience extreme pain during physical contact, while others will experience a complete lack of sensation. Thus, for individuals with autism who wish to explore physical intimacy and sexual sensations, sensory dysregulation can present a large obstacle.
It’s also important for those working in human services to understand how people with autism understand gender identity and the role this plays in their sexuality. Research has shown that 30% of autistic individuals identify as heterosexual, compared to 70% of neurotypical people. This higher tendency among neurodiverse populations to identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer may unfortunately cause them to experience even further discrimination in society in addition to the ableism they may already face as autistic individuals.
Talking to clients with autism about sexuality
To better help you and your organization serve your clients, let’s cover some strategies you can use to teach sexuality to clients with autism. These are by no means the only difficulties your neurodivergent clients will face when exploring their sexuality. But by learning how to talk with them about these difficulties, you’ll create a safer environment for them to open up about other problems they face.
Understanding social cues
A great place to start when teaching clients with autism about sexuality is the language you use. As individuals with autism can find metaphorical or innuendo-laden language difficult to understand, make sure you always use clear and scientifically accurate terminology.
For example, rather than saying “the birds and the bees,” you should say something more like “sex education.” Avoiding confusing metaphors makes it easier for your clients to not only understand what you’re teaching them but to also open up about their own experiences. This is especially important for autistic children, as learning the anatomically correct language for body parts is one protective factor against abuse.
To help your clients become better at picking up on social cues, it’s suggested that you help to model appropriate social skills. Whether you’re teaching a client about proper physical boundaries, how to understand when someone is flirting, or other socially acceptable behavior around sexuality, this can prove an effective method. By modeling the behavior your client wishes to learn or better recognize, you can teach them what various verbal and nonverbal cues from their peers may mean.
Additionally, it’s okay to teach clients that they need to let their partner know to be literal with them. The ability to be open and honest is a key part of any relationship, and this is a lesson your clients will need to learn too. Teaching them to discuss boundaries and preferences with their partners, or potential partners, will help them to establish healthier relationships.
Working around sensory dysregulation
While sensory dysregulation may seem like an insurmountable obstacle, several avenues exist to help clients who experience it. The tactics you teach your clients will depend upon how they experience sensory dysregulation, i.e., feeling pain upon being touched or feeling a lack of sensation.
For those who experience the painful variant of sensory dysregulation, try teaching them to use blankets or latex gloves. These objects act as barriers between partners, helping to diminish the amount of skin-to-skin contact. This decrease in skin contact has shown to decrease the level of discomfort in those with sensory dysregulation.
If your client feels overstimulated, teach them to concentrate on the sensations they experience — for example, where their partner touches them, or the amount of pressure applied by their partner. By focusing on one aspect of the situation, they may be able to block out the other sensations or thoughts that are causing feelings of overstimulation.
Additionally, research has shown that many individuals with autism directly state how they feel in a given moment. This goes back to open and honest communication. By telling their partner whether they are feeling pain, overstimulation, or a lack of sensation, the individual and their partner can work together to create a more enjoyable experience for them both.
Understanding and embracing sexual identity
Studies have shown that LGBTQ+ adolescents report better mental health when their school system provides more comprehensive sex education that meets their needs. Additionally, it has been found that having at least affirming adult in an adolescent’s life makes it much more likely that they will have positive mental health outcomes, and has been shown to reduce suicide attempts by 40%. Unfortunately, under 20% of sex education materials in U.S. schools include LGBTQ+ experiences.
If your clients with autism have questions regarding their sexuality and gender identity but lack access to proper education regarding these subjects, do your best to answer whatever questions they have. If you feel that your clients are struggling to discuss this with you, break the ice by asking open-ended questions. Remember, it’s important to assure them their feelings are normal.
Once you have established a line of dialogue with your client, you can provide them with better resources to help them navigate their emotions and concerns regarding sexuality.