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Eight ways to make sex education autism-friendly

Sex education can be a challenging topic for pupils with autism spectrum disorders, so teachers may need to rethink their provision to help keep these pupils safe, says one specialist

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Sex education can be a challenging topic for pupils with autism spectrum disorders, so teachers may need to rethink their provision to help keep these pupils safe, says one specialist

Teaching sex education is challenging for many teachers. And it gets harder still when teaching children with autism spectrum disorders.

The social interaction and the subtleties of non-verbal communication that drive relationships is often beyond what young people with ASD can imagine. As they can find it harder to understand other points of view, they may not be able to identify when someone is interested in them − or taking advantage of them. Meanwhile, in SRE lessons they may take everything you say literally and be confused by the information you share.

Knowing what is appropriate and what isn’t depends on asking questions and getting feedback, usually from peers. However, students with ASD may not have the friendship group to support them, which means they are even more dependent on their teachers to help them navigate this area of the curriculum.

The question is: who is going to help the teachers?

If you find yourself struggling to fully include children with ASD in sex education lessons, these tips will help you to re-think your provision.

1.) Don’t rely on talk

Remember that children with ASD are more likely than most to take things literally. So, don’t rely on a ‘talk’ and expect them to remember it, process what you’ve said, understand it and be able to put it into practice after one session. Think about how you might show things visually instead. And bear in mind that regular short, supported sessions may be needed to help them understand.

2.) Teach social clues

Reading body language is typically difficult for children with ASD, as is understanding the social ‘rules’ that are implicitly understood by most other young people. Teach children with autism to be ‘social detectives’, through learning about body language, social clues and how to interpret them.

3.) Address sex education safety concerns

Children with ASD are more vulnerable than most to being exploited and becoming engaged in unsuitable sexual behaviours. Remember that some sexual curiosity, talk and behaviour is entirely natural, so don’t jump on every little thing as a sign that the child is doing something dangerous. But teach about privacy and consent, regularly revisiting these terms in different contexts.

4.) Be aware of sensory sensitivities

Sensory sensitivities can mean that touch, sexual sensations and intimacy can be very overwhelming for young people with ASD. They may seek or avoid intimacy, be over-aware or unaware of body odour and personal hygiene, masturbate in public or have strong reactions to perfume and deodorant. Be aware of this and support them in their individual needs.

5.) Explain the difference between private and public  

This distinction needs to be taught very early on. Teach which things are public and which are private, in terms of places, actions and words. Use social stories, pictures and role play to build a strong concept of the two categories and what to do if someone else does something you don’t like. 


6.) Make it ok to be different and expect people to change

Teaching about differences between people, including noticing changes in themselves and others (hair style or shoe size, for example) can provide some foundation for learning about gender, age, and body awareness. Teach that it is ok and natural to change, and to have similarities as well as differences. Use visual timelines to explain growing up and be careful not to say things like “your voice will break”, as this can be taken too literally.

7.) Be prepared to adapt

If a pupil with autism is attending regular sex education lessons, check how much they are understanding. I would always recommend extra or separate lessons where they have a better chance to learn at their own pace. A structured, step-by-step programme with plenty of visual resources often works best.

8.) Collaborate

Write an approach for ASD pupils into your school’s SRE policy. Read up, ask the school to call in a specialist if necessary, and, above all, seek to work closely with parents. You need to be united if you are going to provide the best level of support.

Further reading and resources:

  • Resource pack from NHS Leeds 
  • The Growing up Guide for Girls and The Growing up Book for Boys, by Davida Hartman (Jessica Kingsley)
  • The Autism Spectrum, Sexuality and the Law: What every parent and professional needs to know by Tony Attwood, Isabelle Hénault and Nick Dubin (Jessica Kingsley)
  • What's Happening to Ellie? and What’s Happening to Tom? By Kate E. Reynolds, illustrated by Jonathon Powell (Jessica Kingsley)
  • Taking Care of Myself: A Hygiene, Puberty and Personal Curriculum for Young People with Autism  by Mary Wrobel (Future Horizons)

Lynn McCann is an autism specialist, teacher and consultant at Reachout ASC. Her book, How to support students with ASC in the primary school, will be published in January 2017.

Don't miss TES' sex and relationships education special in this week's magazine, available in all good newsagents. To subscribe, click here. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here.

You can find further resources to support your teaching of SRE through TES Resources.

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