A study from York University in Toronto published in The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders found that individuals with autism were significantly more likely to have suffered sexual abuse than neurotypical individuals. A survey regarding sexual knowledge, sources of sexual knowledge, and sexual victimization was completed by 95 adults with autism and 117 adults without the diagnosis. The results showed that 74 of the adults with autism had been raped, coerced into sex, or otherwise sexually abused, a rate of 78%, as opposed to 47.4% of the participants without autism.
While the authors of the study conceded that the small sample may not represent the greater population of individuals with autism, they expressed concern at the high percentage of participants who had experienced sexual abuse. The survey asked specific questions regarding sexual experiences, such as,
“Have you given into sex play (fondling, kissing, or petting, but not intercourse) when you didn’t want to because you were overwhelmed by someone’s continual arguments and pressures?”
The survey also asked participants questions regarding how they learned about safe sex and appropriate sexual behavior, and the results showed that individuals with autism were at a distinct disadvantage. Those with autism were more likely to have gained their knowledge of safe sex and appropriate sexual behaviors from television, internet, and pornography, as opposed to teachers, parents or friends. The lack of quality sex education leaves many open to misinformation and possible abuse.
It can be difficult for parents and teachers to know what is appropriate when educating young people with autism about sexuality. Autism Speaks has created the Autism Safety Project, which includes guidelines for parents and teachers. According to their website, comprehensive sexuality education should focus on three areas, basic facts and personal safety, individual values, and social competence. Education should start at a young age, when parents can explain the physical differences between boys and girls, and the concepts of appropriate and inappropriate touching. As children move into the teen years, social mores get more complicated, making things extra difficult for individuals who already have difficulty reading social cues.
Luckily, there are resources designed to help parents and professionals educate children in an appropriate manner. Books such as Sexuality and Severe Autism: A Practical Guide for Parents, Caregivers, and Health Educators by Kate E. Reynolds and Sexuality and Relationship Education for Children and Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder by Davida Hartman are available at major retailers like Amazon. Other books, such as The Aspie Girl’s Guide to Being Safe with Men: The Unwritten Safety Rules No One is Telling You by Debi Brown are geared directly towards individuals with autism spectrum disorders.
While the results of this study are disturbing, they make it clear how important it is to educate young people on the autism spectrum about sexuality and appropriate behaviors. No one deserves to be a victim, and everybody has the right to pursue friendships and romantic relationships on their own terms.