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Sexual Lives and Dating

Human sexuality is very complex. Sexuality is influenced by numerous interactions which include, but are not limited to, biological, psychological, social, ethical, legal, religious and cultural factors. Similarly complex is the process of sexual development which has been described as a “multidimensional process intimately linked to the basic human needs of being liked and accepted, displaying and receiving affection, feeling valued and attractive and sharing thoughts and feelings.” (Murphy & Elias, 2006, p. 398) What it comes down to is that sexuality is simply part of being human. Avoidance of any discussion of sexuality and/or sexuality instruction as it pertains to individuals with autism constitutes, in effect, a tacit denial of their humanity which would seem to be unacceptable.

Teens and adults with autism who can communicate do make it known that they do, or would, enjoy a romantic relationship, as do individuals who are nonverbal. Knowing that you want to relate to someone is not that same as knowing how to relate. Difficulties in verbal communication are not the only challenges to intimate relationships for individuals with autism. Other relational challenges include response to touch, emotions, and nonverbal behaviors such as eye contact.

Communication can be as difficult for an adult with autism as it is for a child when it comes to being able to get needs met or being able to engage in casual conversation. Remember too that any individual with poor communication skills may be the perfect victim for sexual abuse because they cannot say “no” to unwanted touch and may even have difficulty recognizing and reporting sexually abusive behavior afterward. It would be faulty thinking to believe that early teaching about sex might encourage sexual experimentation. In reality, lack of knowledge might make them a potential sexual abuse victim.

Learning about sexuality is a lifelong process, beginning at birth and continuing well into adulthood. As parents we are teach our children about their bodies as they become aware of their sexuality. We teach our children about love and affection as well as respect for their bodies and good touch/bad touch. We must remember that a child grows into a young adult with autism, just as their peers, and will one day want to be in a loving relationship with dating and intimacy. As parents, when our children are young, we should not assume that they do not understand concepts of sexuality, or that they will not have the same hormones, urges, or need to make the same choices as their peers. We need to teach and provide them with accurate information, at appropriate developmental times, so that they are ready to experience intimacy as an adult. The needed information includes: 1) public versus private behavior; 2) good touch vs. bad touch; 3) proper names of body parts; 4) personal boundaries; 5) signs of danger; 6) abuse prevention; 7) social skills and relationship building; 8) dating skills and 9) personal responsibility and values.

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