Let’s Talk about Sex, Baby


For typically developing tweens and teens, sex education comes most often from peers, parents, school and healthcare providers. The same can’t be said for tweens and teens with autism. They may not participate in school-based sex education or be provided with individualized education about sex and relationships, and usually have fewer close friends to confide in and learn about subtleties of romance and dating. Parents of youth with autism vary in the degree to which they addressed sex and sexuality with their child(ren), according to research by Dr. Laura Graham Holmes, a postdoctoral fellow at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.  

Parents report talking about privacy, public versus private conversations, hygiene, puberty, sexual abuse prevention and some information about sexual health with their teens with autism”, says Dr. Holmes. However, she found that parents were less likely to address relationship topics like how to ask someone on a date, consent, and sexual health concerns like birth control or HIV prevention. Even doctors reported they didn’t bring up sexual development and relationships in a preventative manner with every patient, but were more likely to address these when parents brought problems to their attention -  despite acknowledging the importance of these conversations.  Doctors cited lack of time and training in autism-specific sexuality development or sexual health needs, in addition to perceived patient and family discomfort.

While discomfort and awkwardness are an almost universal experience when talking about sex for parents of typically developing kids and teens, “parent expectations about whether a teen wants or will have a relationship may influence the range of topics parents of teens with autism discuss”, according to Dr. Holmes. Parents who think it is less likely that their child will one day have healthy sexual relationships, go on dates, and get married - or whose young adult has not expressed interest in relationships - talk about fewer sex and relationship topics than parents who think that their child is more likely to have relationships. However, that doesn’t stop parents of youth with autism from worrying and expressing concern about how the symptoms of autism may affect their child’s social skill set for dating as well as their ability to find a long-term partner and experience a fulfilling relationship.

“Even when teens don’t seem interested, they need a foundation of information about sex and love. We also know that greater sexual knowledge is linked to lower rates of sexual victimization, so these conversations are very important. Intimate partners and relationships are a key part of overall health and wellbeing, and are an important priority for many adults. We need to also make romantic relationships a priority and learn about the sexual health needs of individuals with autism so we can develop appropriate sex education programs for everyone on the spectrum.” says Dr. Holmes.   

Resources for Parents:

Sexuality Instruction for Tweens, Teens and Young Adults

Ten Steps to Help a Teen with Autism Navigate Dating