Sex education ‘fails young people with autism’

Published: 22 September 2016 at 12:45

School pupils in a classroom

New study by Anglia Ruskin psychologists suggests the need for tailored provision

New research indicates that mainstream school sex education classes fail to meet the needs of young people with autism. 

The study, carried out by the Autism Research Area at Anglia Ruskin University and published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, recommends that tailored sex education is needed to help young people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Led by Dr Steven Stagg, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University, the study used both questionnaires and in-depth interviews to represent the views of 20 young people with ASD.  Dr Stagg said: 

“We found that the young people with ASD reported negative experiences of sex education.  

“Issues of vulnerability, social anxiety, and confused sexuality were prominent features of the qualitative interviews.  The participants felt that sex education in school was inadequate and failed to address their specific needs.  

“While many young people have their knowledge of sex supplemented by friends, this is often not the case for people with autism who may have limited social contact with others. 

“Participants wanted sex education to be given at a slower pace and to cover subjects such as the language of sex.  For example, one girl said that she failed to understand ‘dirty talk’ and didn’t know when terms were being used as jokes or whether people were serious. 

“Social difficulties also mean that individuals with autism may need more explicit teaching of the subtleties of relationships and how to build them.  The ASD group also had less awareness of their own sexuality and the impact it has on others.  One boy ended up practically stalking a potential partner without realising this was unacceptable behaviour.”

The researchers measured sexual awareness using a validated questionnaire and the statistical analysis demonstrated that the ASD group scored significantly lower than a typically developing (TD) comparison group on measures of sexual consciousness (ASD group scored 40% lower than the TD group), sexual monitoring (ASD group scored 42% lower), sexual assertiveness (ASD group scored 78% lower) and sex appeal consciousness (ASD group scored 86% lower).  

The effect size was large for each of the measures, suggesting that the differences in sexual awareness and understanding between the two groups is significant.  

Dr Stagg added: 

“This lowered awareness may lead some individuals into situations where they may be vulnerable to exploitation, and some participants in the study spoke about situations where they had clearly been exploited. 
“Our research suggests that schools should look at delivering sex education and sexual awareness classes that are tailored to the very specific needs of young people with autism.”