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Educating Your Child About Sexuality and Relationships

Educating Your Child About Sexuality and Relationships

Sexuality and relationship education includes a wide range of information: changing bodies, dating, kissing, gender identity, being turned down for a date, healthy relationships, and more.

We know that teaching sexuality and relationship education is the best way to keep kids healthy and safe. Despite this knowledge, we are not given a lot of information about how to take on these conversations. In fact, parents/guardians of autistic children and teens often share that they have a high level of concern about approaching these topics well and feel under-resourced to do so.

Keep in mind if you are a parent who TRIES (timing, reflection, information, engagement, support) to educate your child, then you are a parent who is doing this well. We are here to help with suggestions from our research and clinical work over the years.

Timing: Start earlier rather than later.

Sexuality and relationship education includes a lot of complex pieces. Topics like consent, privacy, and understanding their personal sensory profile can and should take a long time for people to learn, especially because these concepts can get more nuanced as people age.

Ideally, that means everyone would start learning as early as possible. For example, teaching about consent and boundaries while teens and pre-teens are experiencing adolescent hormones and peer pressure is easier when you have already helped your child build a foundation of saying and hearing “no” in friendships. That being said, it is never too late to chat about sexuality and relationship education.

As a parent, you don’t have to figure out how to start these conversations by yourself. There are lots of resources available (see our list below). You will also notice natural openings to discuss sexuality and relationships, like, for example, when a television show storyline is about sex or relationships or if a book your child is reading has something about relationships as part of the plot.

Reflection: Educate yourself.

You might be excited about providing this information to your child. You might be uncomfortable. It’s likely you’re a little bit of both, depending on the topic. The more comfortable you are, the easier these discussions or teaching moments will be. If you are not caught off guard by a question that requires an immediate answer, see if you can identify areas where you could use some more practice or knowledge. Use the resources yourself first. For example, if you are using visuals or picture books with your child, practice reading and saying the words aloud. Keep in mind that what you learned as a teen may not be updated for today’s world, such as terminology about sexual orientation and gender identities.

All of us have been asked a sexuality and relationship education question that we are unsure of. This is a great opportunity to model how to find good quality information online or from a trusted book together. You do not need to be an expert on everything.

Information: Understand what topics are important to cover.

The National Sex Education Standards identify seven areas that are important to cover for all children and adolescents:  

  1. Consent and healthy relationships
  2. Anatomy and physiology
  3. Puberty and adolescent sexual development
  4. Gender identity and expression
  5. Sexual orientation and identity
  6. Sexual health
  7. Interpersonal violence

We know from autistic adults that gender identity, sexual orientation, consent, and boundaries are key areas they wish they had received more sex education on. Additionally, sensory aspects of development and relationships are often highly important to autistic people but are not topics that are covered in most sex education curricula. Finally, sexuality is hugely culturally bound. Expectations and taboos from your own cultural community around dating, relationships, and sexuality may be information your child learns from family or even unintentionally, but likely is not directly addressed in school.

Your child may know more than you think (or may think they know some things that are not quite accurate, which is common as kids develop). Asking “what do you know about that topic?” or “what do you think about that situation?” can be a good place to start a conversation. Sexual health is part of the curriculum at some schools; television and media often include relationship messages; and kids and teens also observe those in relationships around them. You must find a balance between not skipping important information, like names of body parts and what changes will happen during puberty, and recognizing that kids have access to sexuality and relationship topics much earlier these days than when you were growing up. Checking what your child knows also allows you to gently correct definitions or ideas that might be incorrect. For children who use communication devices, for example, being able to label their genitals is really important both for autonomy and for safety reasons.

Engagement: Make a plan.

Sometimes, with all the other things parents have going on, sexuality and relationship education can slip to the bottom of the to-do list, despite its importance. We know from research studies that there is no specific person in charge of making sure sex education happens, leaving medical providers, teachers, and parents with a murky path to get sex education done. Find an accountability buddy, maybe another parent with a similarly aged child, or pick a recurring event to check in on your sex education goals at least yearly, such as an annual check-up or the first week of school. Writing out your goals and plans can be a good visual prompt. Here is a simple team chart that we use to make a coordinated plan.

Everyone also has their own comfort levels in discussing sexuality related topics. You may not feel comfortable talking to your child by yourself or your child may not feel comfortable talking to you about this. You do not have to teach them by yourself. Assigning this job to someone else (or something else, like a book or video) may be a better option. It is common to feel uncomfortable and shy during the education process and you want to plan ahead. Other family members, like cousins and in-laws, especially those closer to their age, can also help. Consider building on educational practices that have been effective for your child in other areas to help support best learning. It is also wise to tie this education to an event or activity that you or your child are already familiar with, such as a family game.

Support: Make use of resources that work for you and your child.

There are plenty of materials and resources to be used in multiple environments. Your child may already receive lessons about gender and sexuality at school. If not, you can always ask for those to be provided. The Individualized Education Plan (IEP) is rarely used to address sexuality and relationship education, but it is something you can advocate for.  

You can also use online resources, especially if your child thrives when they are learning by themselves. You can look for books, webinars, comics, and sex education groups, whatever learning format works well for your child in other topics would be good to investigate. 

Information about sexuality and relationship is important for health, safety, and happiness. As providers of this information, we can reflect on our own knowledge and comfort, make a plan, and use existing resources to make sex ed happen.

Resources

OAR’s Sex Ed for Self-Advocates: A website specifically for teens and young adults  

Amaze.org: An extensive collection of brief engaging videos about a wide range of health topics 

Autism Relationships Workbook: Written for and by autistic individuals, with a focus on boundaries and assertiveness

Our research lab maintains an ongoing list at the bottom of this page. 


Eileen Crehan, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and assistant professor at Tufts University. Her work focuses on improving accessibility to healthcare, sexuality and relationship education, and academic experiences. Using a social model of disability, she collaborates with neurodivergent people to design better trainings and resources for providers and educators. Outside of work, she is a parent of a sweet and sassy three-year-old, and loves reading historical fiction, rearranging tangrams, and trying new types of tea.

 

Xihan Yang, M.A., is a researcher interested in cross-cultural differences and needs in autism education. With practical experiences working in autism education institutions in different countries, she intends to provide culturally informed education for autistic children and adolescents with different cultural backgrounds. In her leisure time, she loves doing puzzles, reading fiction, and visiting different types of museums. 

The post Educating Your Child About Sexuality and Relationships first appeared on Organization for Autism Research.

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