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Connections - 06.29.23

Ways to Support Healthy Sexuality for Individuals With Autism

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Editor’s note: Recognizing a diverse range of preferences within the autism community, the author of this article intentionally uses person-first (people with autism) and identity-first (autistic people) language interchangeably when referring to groups of people who identify as autistic.

Despite common stereotypes, individuals with autism can and do experience the entire range of human sexuality. It’s important to recognize that struggling with specific aspects of sexuality doesn’t invalidate their ability to have sexual feelings, and consequently, the need to receive sexuality education.

As developmental disability professionals, it is crucial for us to be aware of the latest research on autism and sexuality. This understanding allows us to effectively support people with autism when discussing this topic. The following are just a few ways to help support autistic individuals with specific aspects of sexuality.

Helping with Social Cues

For some individuals with autism, social cues can prove difficult to understand. When it comes to sexuality, this means they may misinterpret flirtatious behavior as something else or vice versa.

To help the people you support better understand these types of non-verbal cues, modeling these behaviors via practice role-play scenarios can be a great place to start. By demonstrating what types of social cues are considered acceptably flirtatious, and explaining which ones are not, you can help your those you support better understand these cues out in the world.

While this can help people with autism make great strides, it’s also important to teach self advocacy. This should include letting their partners or prospective partners know (in an appropriate manner) that non-verbal cues may be difficult for them and to use more literal language with them.

Working with Dysregulation

For some individuals with autism, physical acts of sexuality can cause distress. Due to sensory dysregulation, physical touch may either cause pain or no perceptible sensation. For those with sensory dysregulation, this can obviously make a healthy approach to sexuality difficult.

Based on the way each person responds to physical touch, there are a few ways to help them work with this condition.

If they experience pain when their skin is touched, or when they touch their partner, coach them to use blankets or latex gloves. These layers decrease skin-to-skin contact, reducing or nullifying the pain someone may feel upon being touched.

If someone you support feels over- or under-stimulated, coach them on taking a more mindful approach to their time with their partner. In the same way that mindful meditation teaches us to concentrate on one aspect of what we’re doing (breathing, washing the dishes, etc.), teaching them to focus on a specific part of the stimulation provided by their partner, while tuning out the rest, can help balance out the amount of stimuli they feel.

Much like with social cues, the advice in this section will require self-advocacy. Teach the people you support to be confident in their needs and their ability to clearly communicate these needs with their partner.

Nellie Galindo currently services as a Product Marketing Manager for Relias.