Top 5 autism tips for professionals: sex education for autistic children

Dr Catherine Tissot is Head of the Institute of Education, University of Reading and a Teaching Fellow.  Her main research interest focuses on autism spectrum disorders and the challenges of adolescence in education and here she gives her top 5 autism tips on sex education for autistic children.

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Author: Dr Catherine Tissot

Top 5 Tips

Sex education for autistic children

As children and young people grow and learn, they experience the same urges and hormone drives that others do, but often without the support or understanding of their actions and the subsequent consequences. 

Parents underestimate the sexual experience of their children (Dewinter et al., 2016) and frequently find the topic a difficult one to discuss at all (Nichols & Blakeley-Smith, 2009).  Below are some top tips for helping autistic individuals access appropriate sex education within schools and settings.

1.  Include parents and relevant professionals

Whether we like it or not, there are inherent risks associated with this topic especially if, for example, the young person finds the topic confusing or is keen to discuss it and share new terms with grandma or the neighbour.  Parents need to be included, but you may also want to extend this to social workers or the Local Authority Designated Officer in complex cases.

2.  Visual materials

Frequently, autistic individuals learn best through a visual medium.  Your local Family Planning agency may have useful photographs/graphics as these are not something that can easily be searched for on the internet!  Consider asking for volunteers among the artists you know who may be willing to help you create a format tailored for the individual.  Visual stories are also a useful tool to help explain appropriate responses to social events (see Carol Gray’s Social Stories).  Whatever you use, don’t forget to let the senior leaders and IT technicians know what you are doing.

3.  Try drama

Role playing is quite a powerful tool and can easily be done with limited props and in almost any space.  It is quite helpful to have the young person take on the role of another character to practice various social situations or conversations.  These can be everyday settings (speaking to someone next to you on the bus) or more complex events such as dating.  Make sure to use props such as hats or jackets so the young person can act the part.  Puppets are also surprisingly useful for practicing social skills.

4.  Carefully consider how you define public and private  

This is not a black and white issue.  Remember to mention that health professionals maybe required to examine genitals as part of health checks. Have some consideration whether you wish to identify toilets outside the home as private spaces.  We would not consider self-stimulation appropriate in public toilets, but autistic people might if they are told this is a private space.

5.  If at first you don’t succeed….  

Appropriate sexual behaviour is an essential life skill.  A failure to address inappropriate behaviour has the potential to significantly reduce an individual’s opportunity for social interactions with others.  It is not always easy to break established habits, but they will only get worse when they are not addressed.  This may take several attempts.  

There are some excellent resources available specifically designed for autistic people which are well worth exploring (see for example Davies & Dubie, 2012; Ripley, 2014) which may be a helpful place to start.  


Davies, C. & Dubie, M. (2012). Intimate Relationships and Sexual Health. Shawnee Mission, Kansas, USA: AAPC Publishing.

Dewinter, J., Vermeiren, R., Vanwesenbeeck, I., & Van Nieuwenhuizen, C. (2016). Parental Awareness of Sexual Experience in Adolescent Boys with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 46(2), 713-719. doi: 10.1007/s10803-015-2622-3

Gray, C. (2010). The New Social Story Book. Arlington, Texas: Future Horizons.

Nichols, S., & Blakeley-Smith, A. (2009). “I'm Not Sure We're Ready for This …”: Working with Families Toward Facilitating Healthy Sexuality for Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Social Work in Mental Health, 8(1), 72-91. doi: 10.1080/15332980902932383

Ripley, K. (2014). Exploring Friendships, Puberty and Relationships:  A programme to help children and young people on the autism spectrum to cope with the challenges of adolescence. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.


Date added: 15 November 2016