Autism and Preparing the Way for Romance

Validating the sexuality of those with autism

It’s common for the parents and caregivers of children on the autism spectrum to steer clear of the topic of sex and avoid sex education. As autistic children become adults, they are sometimes considered childlike, without the desire or the need for increasing degrees of intimate experiences that may or may not lead to sex. The developmental delays that happen in the cognitive and emotional functioning of a child with ASD tend to make parents and caregivers anxious about the possibility of romance and sexual encounters.

But these anxieties need to be dealt with and overcome if children with autism are going to have the best chance at experiencing a romantic relationship or getting married when they get older. According to the first volume of the book, “Recent Advances in Autism Spectrum Disorders” (available on the Intech website), the accepted advice about sexuality and autism is not to view people with developmental delays as “childlike, asexual, or as inappropriately sexual.” To do so is to deprive them of developing the abilities early on to engage in intimate exchanges when they become adults.

People with autism are sexual beings and should be validated in their sexuality. Not all people with autism can or will choose to pursue a romantic relationship. It can be complicated and messy for neurotypicals, let alone adding a disorder into the mix that hinders the ability to understand the feelings of another and to respond in a way that communicates this understanding. But it’s important that a choice be given. Many children with autism grow up without any education about their sexuality or about aspects of dating and the appropriate behaviors in these contexts.

It may be unsettling to open up a topic such as romance and sex when children and adolescence with autism are vulnerable because of a characteristic inability to discern social situations, including the inability to distinguish inappropriate touching by others or inappropriate behaviors they are acting out toward someone they like, such as stalking. Along with education in their sexuality and how a parent or caregiver wants to teach about sex itself, is the necessity of acclimating an autistic child with aspects of intimacy throughout his or her growing up years. Aspects of intimacy as it relates to autism may mean acclimating to making eye contact, handling and giving touch, identifying and managing emotions, and carrying on fluid conversation.

In therapeutic and learning activities meant to facilitate communication skills, emotional connectedness, and awareness of self and of others, relating these skills in the context of romance will help an adolescent’s transition from childhood play to adulthood desires for romance less of a leap. With a diagnosis of autism, preparation is key for the success of many endeavors, whether the autistic child is visiting the dentist for the first time, traveling to Disney World for the first time, or venturing into dating and finding someone to share life with for the first time.