Sexuality education is not limited to one class you took in high school but is instead a lifelong process. For individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) learning about sexuality can be more difficult, but that does not mean that it is less necessary. I believe all people have the right to quality sex education. When it comes to educating individuals with ASD, there are several things to keep in mind including, but not limited to, communication issues and social skills.
What is autism spectrum disorder?
Autism spectrum disorder refers to a group of developmental brain disorders. The impairment an individual diagnosed with ASD experiences can range from mild to severe; this is the very reason it is a spectrum. Social impairment, difficulties with communication, and repetitive behaviors are common symptoms of ASD. Symptoms can vary from person to person, as well as in severity.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-V) revised the diagnosis of ASD in 2013. In their previous edition (DSM-IV), patients could be diagnosed with four different disorders as ASD.
- Autistic disorder
- Asperger’s disorder
- Childhood disintegrative disorder
- Pervasive developmental disorder otherwise specified
In the new DSM-V patients must show symptoms from early childhood to be diagnosed with ASD. This new diagnostic criteria will allow older individuals to be diagnosed after symptoms become evident, as well as allowing diagnosis at a younger age. This is a change from the previous diagnostic criteria that was geared for school-age children.
For this post we will be discussing how sexuality education can be beneficial for individuals with communication issues and social skills impairment. Symptoms are vast, however, so every person with ASD can be impacted differently and therefore would benefit from an individual, tailored approach.
Is sexuality education necessary?
Sexuality education can be stressful and unpleasant for anyone. Adding in social impairment and communication issues only makes this type of education more challenging. The key here is challenging, but not impossible.
Far too often educators see sexuality education for individuals with ASD as unnecessary and too complex. Some may think that there is no desire for sexual intimacy or that the knowledge would not be useful, but some individuals who are diagnosed with ASD do experience sexual desires and wish to pursue interpersonal relationships. Sullivan and Caterino (2008) believe these desires by individuals with ASD merit their inclusion into sexuality education.
Proactive education may be helpful in addressing some of the problems faced by individuals with ASD in regards to relationships and sexuality. Education can also be useful for decreasing the chance for abuse of the individual. It is important that education takes place before dangerous, offensive, or inappropriate behavior occurs. Educators can give students, and caregivers, the tools they may need before they are necessary or before it is too late.
Truth be told, there has been little research into sexuality education for individuals with ASD. This is an area of human sexuality that is deserving of more attention. With a deficient in quality research, Sullivan and Caterino (2008) suggest using teaching skills that have proven effective in other domains for the purposes of sex education. Adaptive behavior is one such technique that has proven helpful for students with ASD and could be applied to the specific topic of sexuality.
According to Dr. Gerhardt, the goals of sexuality education for individuals with ASD should include: providing accurate information and the development of personal values and social competence. These goals are not likely to be achieved overnight and will take multiple lessons and great time investment.
Topics covered should be developmentally appropriate and timed when developing a lesson plan. When students begin masturbating, for example, a discussion on private versus public behaviors may be appropriate. A hierarchy of skills can be followed to facilitate education ensuring it occurs at suitable times and in effective sequences. It would not be apt to discuss ejaculation and pregnancy before the student has learned some anatomy. Teaching within the zone of proximal development, or using scaffolding, is crucial. You should be educating past independent learning, something the student can do on their own, to more advanced topics that the student can understand when collaborating with the educator or peers. Using this technique the student should later be able to independently work on the topic they previously collaborated with another person on, allowing them to move on to collaborating the someone on a more complex topic.
Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development
Language can create a strong barrier when discussing sex. There are many different terms used for anatomy and actions. When educating, make sure that both you the educator and the students are speaking the same language. This means that both parties are in fact talking about the same thing. Do not assume that anything is common vocabulary or obvious. This also means avoid using euphemisms and sarcasm as they may be misinterpreted.
The use of anatomical models, or dolls, may be very useful for individuals in learning about appropriate touch and social behaviors. These anatomical models could also aid in developing a greater understanding of bodily hygiene and appropriate terms for body parts.
Some individuals with ASD will attend to irrelevant stimuli. Try to decrease this stimulus in order to help students focus on the material you are presenting. Make what you want the students to attend to obvious.
Involving caregivers is extremely important to the success of education. These individuals may understand the struggles or issues the student is facing and be better able to verbalize them to you. Caregivers can be used as educators within the home. Keeping a consistent message between school and home life will increase the chances of successful educational interventions and future behavior change.
Sex educators should educate themselves on some techniques they can apply in the classroom to reach students with ASD. Teaching individuals proper sexual health, relationships, social cues, and sexual behaviors may significantly alter the quality of life for those who wish to pursue others romantically or sexually but have not felt prepared or comfortable in doing so.
Sullivan, A. & Caterino, L. C. (2008). Addressing the Sexuality and Sex Education of
Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Education and Treatment of Children, 31(3), 381-394.