Educating Sex & Relationships to Autistic People
We will refer to a sex therapist who has recently done a podcast with North East Autism Society, she was questioned on various topics around this “edgy” subject around autism an sex.
The podcast can be listened to on Spotify here.
Ness Cooper is a clinical sexologist trained in sex education, sex therapy and sex coaching. When she was 15 years old, she was diagnosed with autism and had a specific interest in neuroscience. She went on to do various courses in sexology and managed to start out on her own as a sex therapist today.and relationships?
Sex and relationships is a big part of our overall well-being. If this part of a person’s life is disrupted it disrupts their overall well-being and their overall well-being can affect their sex and relationship well-being too.
The topic of sex is regarded as a very “taboo” topic. These taboos can carry on through generations thus affecting people’s sex well-being.
She says that new generations are starting to self-explore sex and relationships as well, which is another reason why it is important that we educate sex and relationships as there are always going to be barriers to accessibility caused by these taboos and stigmas.
Barriers for Autistic People
In terms of barriers faced by autistic individuals, there are many different reasons why autistic people cannot access the world of sex and relationships. One particular barrier discusses during the podcast was in relation to the current education system.
Ness Cooper goes onto to expand on these barriers.
Gaps In Education
Autistic people will have gaps in their education, i.e. they may be waiting for EHC plans. It takes a while for these plans to be put in place and many autistic children and teenagers may need varied support and adjustments.
Autistic people may need different support during different classes, so some may need emotional support, require time out (so they don’t get overwhelmed). Because it is taking ages to get these plans into place, autistic kids are not being allows this kid of support in order to process information.
Another major barrier is the misconception that people with a disability are seen as “asexual” or “hyper-sexual”. This then means that parents and carers follow the approach of avoiding talking about the subject because it is safer to do so. This is actually counterproductive to safeguarding as we SHOULD be talking about these matters. There is still this “stigma” around disabilities which we need to move away from so that these people get the chance to be educated on things like consent, privacy and to learn more about themselves in the process.
The sex therapist has been to training session with a lot of teachers and carers of SEND children and teenagers, and they have claimed that they should not teach sex education because “they won’t understand it”.
What teachers don’t realise is that other subjects like maths may not be understood but they still have to teach it. You may also have to teach some kids multiple times or a bit slower in order for them to learn. This way of learning applies to all children (not just autistic), as they all learn differently. A lot of people need things explaining to them in a different way.
Sex Education Teaching Approaches in Schools
Ness Cooper trains other sex therapists and sex educators that go into schools. She helps sex educators with lesson plans and writing up plans. When doing in-person talks, she prefers to come into colleges and universities.
Varied Learning Styles
It is important to incorporate different learning styles in high schools/secondary schools to teach sex education. Kids may need to learn things differently, i.e. using a visual approach, or hands-on or verbal/text approach. It is important to incorporate a bit of each and have multiple activities. Having these different plans for learning promotes not forcing standardized communication onto any individual. It is important to highlight privacy and consent throughout this teaching. As long as things are consensual and safe there is no need for standard communication.
The bigger message here: everyone should be able to communicate in different ways and autistic people aren’t not interested in relationships/friendships.”
Go At Their Pace
She advises not to rush college/university students as this tends not to work. It is important that we go at the individual’s pace.
It is also important to listen, and to answer questions when needed. Don’t feel like you have to be the sole educator, as sometimes we will learn things differently from different people. Let them talk to their friends as well, they can discuss things safely in a safe area.
Sex Education Barriers to Parents
So, how do parents generally feel about their children accessing a curriculum around sex and relationships?
Parents may not understand the curriculum. Ness Cooper explains that she wouldn’t talk about the same thing to younger children that she would otherwise to over 18s.
Sex education is not about telling children what they should be doing. It is about providing them with resources to ensure they are safe. Sex educators will never expect people to conform to anything.
A lot of parents think that sex education involves a lot of exposure to explicit information. Ness Cooper explains that it is not about the explicit but about making people feel safe in themselves and the people around them. Confidence and self-esteem is the main focus in sex education. While there may be some occasional “scary” topics, the is nothing “sexualised” involved like there might be out there.
It is important to make this point clear to children’s parents.
Barriers for Autistic Adults
When educating older age groups and adults, Ness Cooper focuses on different topics and areas. One thing she mentions is helping adults with scripts and routines and helping support them towards accepting themselves. Reassuring people who may have been beating themselves up for doing something that is perfectly fine and normal (as long as it is private and consensual). She stresses that it is okay to enjoy the body.
She has noticed from previous experience, that there is a confusion because of masking (learn more about masking here). And there is also confusion because of the way some neurodivergent individuals (due to sensory needs) may release themselves- not necessarily in a sexual way.
Adults who stim get told that they are being sexually inappropriate quite often. For example, rubbing against certain fabrics. They are only doing this to seek sensory stimulation. We need to understand what autistic people are getting out of this sensory “experience”.
The DSM (diagnostic manual) that has been around a long time now, has fetishized and sexualised things that are actually common behaviors which is not at all helpful.
Tips for Parents on Approaching Sex Education
It is likely that young people will already be having questions in their head around sex and relationships. If parents ask them questions, they probably won’t be surprised.
Ness mentions the importance of having multiple sources of information ready for when you decide to approach the topic with your child. So if they aren’t ready to talk about it, you can then signpost them to other reliable sources of information.
She recommends a website called “Bish”. This website offers training for parents where they can learn about what’s important to talk about, or what questions they may want you to answer. Click here to check out the website.
Thank you for reading this blog!
Please check out other related topics around autism here.