Sex education has long been hot-button issues in the U.S., and people with disabilities face particular challenges in the area of sexual health and education. Many people without disabilities see disabled people, particularly those with mental or developmental disabilities, as “childlike” or innocent, and believe there is no need to provide sex education for them. This attitude places people with autism at a distinct disadvantage.
Despite popular perceptions that people with autism unilaterally function at the level of children, functioning varies widely from person to person, and most are curious about interpersonal relationships and how to navigate romances, whether or not they are personally pursuing those relationships. Additionally, many people who are diagnosed as autistic when they are teens or adults have already embarked on romantic relationships, and may already be partnered or married when they receive a diagnosis.
However, the ability to “mask” or pass as neurotypical does not necessarily confer a deep understanding of the complex nuances of dating and sexual relationships, and these people may be operating under many unhealthy misunderstandings. Disabled people are at a higher risk of domestic abuse and violence than the general population due to their dependence on others, so all people, at any level of functioning, need sex education to protect their health and wellbeing.
Although many people of all neurotypes hold misconceptions about human anatomy, biology, and healthy social interaction, people with autism require particularly clear and factual information. When sex education is provided in schools, it is often insufficient for those with autism — when teachers feel awkward about the material and/or rely on students to “fill in the gaps” and learn on their own, either anatomically or relationally, autistic students have not been helped at all. “Filling in the gaps” of human interaction is precisely what they are struggling to do.
People with autism also tend to process concepts literally, and may need assistance understanding how human bodies vary from those in standardized textbook illustrations, or need help with other misunderstandings that will be totally missed by teachers not paying close attention and speaking in specific terms. Similarly, many sex education programs fail to cover the signs of abusive or unhealthy relationships, or assume that none of their disabled students have any sexual history.
Teachers also should not assume their students are heterosexual and cisgender. With up to 50% of people with autism identifying as LGBTQ+, a standard heteronormative curriculum is likely to miss many of their concerns. The specific explanations given must include at least the possibility of same-sex attraction and intercourse in order to have any bearing on this population. Although specific differences between heterosexual/cisgender and LGBTQ+ cultural practices undoubtedly change too quickly to include in a curriculum, people with autism benefit from knowing that these differences exist, and from learning specific interpersonal techniques that are applicable in any situation. With many of these LGBTQ+ autistic people also identifying as nonbinary, trans, or genderqueer, the need to address how bodies vary from the norm is even more acute, as is the need to discuss asexuality.
Finally, people with autism have widely varying sensory experiences and needs which are unlikely to be addressed in a standard neurotypical curriculum. Many seek intense physical sensation, which can overlap with or be mistaken for an interest in kink. Others dislike almost all physical contact, but may be interested in other romantic or sexual interactions. Those who enjoy sex will still likely need coping strategies for processing the high volume of sensory input it brings, and will need the skills to communicate their needs to a partner or partners.
All of these particularly autistic concerns remain unaddressed in a heteronormative, neurotypical sex education course, if one is available at all to an autistic person with questions. However, for the health, safety, and happiness of people with autism, the information and skills they need should be available to them as part of their health education and social training.