“But how do they get into a car?,” my daughter asked.
That day, she learned about penis and vagina sex. She left believing that once a penis was inserted into a vagina, it stayed there. Forever.
Her question made sense. If two people are stuck together by their genitals, how would they get into a car? Her teacher didn’t explain that eventually the penis is pulled out of the vagina. They assumed she would understand this on her own.
My daughter is now 15-years-old and has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). This means that my daughter’s brain functions differently than her neurotypical peers. She learns differently, communicates differently and participates in social interactions differently.
As a parent, I know that I play an important role in my daughter’s sex education. However, teens spend around 1,500 of their waking hours a year at school.
Schools are mandated to teach sex education and most teens with autism receive the same sex education as their neurotypical peers—same content, the same teaching method, in the same classroom.
But we know that teens with autism experience the world differently, so why doesn’t sex education that accommodate this?
In 2001, the Ontario Human Rights Commission conducted a review of Ontario’s Education Act and Ontarians with Disabilities Act.
“In order for persons with disabilities to receive equal treatment in education, they must have equal access to educational opportunities. The duty to accommodate includes identifying and removing barriers that impede the ability of persons with disabilities to access educational services,” the report said.
The current sex education being provided to teens with autism is not accessible.
“I don’t have a teenager’s body,” my daughter said.
When I inquired where this came from, my daughter explained that an adult male had been making remarks about her body. These were inappropriate remarks, but she didn’t fully realize and so did not report it.
Though this is alarming, it’s not surprising. Teens with autism are at greater risk of experiencing sexual assault and abuse.
Eileen Crehan is the associate clinical director at the Autism Assessment, Research, Treatment and Services Center.
“The more a kid with autism knows about sexuality, the safer the are likely to be,” Crehan said in an interview with Spark for Autism.
However, in comparison to their neurotypical peers, teens with autism generally know less about sex. The information that they receive about sex doesn’t translate.
“Being more explicit and concrete can be really helpful. Saying, ‘Don’t let anyone do what you don’t want them to do’ is vague,” Crehan said.
Issues such as consent and sexual abuse are covered in sex education at school. However, if it is not delivered in a way that can be easily understood by all, it is not accessible.
A lesson on safety is not all teens with autism deserve from their sex education. People with autism can struggle with self-awareness and understanding the mental state of others.
Sex and relationships are the apex of social situations. These interactions require participants to decipher subtle, non-verbal communication and to understand how one’s own behaviour is being perceived.
This is not innate for many teens with autism.
Part of sex education is to prepare teens for engaging in dating, sex and relationships. Teachers need to explain the rules of engagement.
If teachers assume that teens with autism understand these social nuances, they are not only failing to education, they are reinforcing barriers.
Sex also comes with its own language of slang and innuendos. My daughter bursts into giggles whenever she says, “69”, but isn’t quite sure why it’s funny. Sexual innuendos and slang can be difficult to interpret since they take inference.
Consider the term “dirty talk”. If you think in very literal terms, how would you decipher it? When my daughter first heard this term, she thought it meant talking about something that was literally dirty. This confused her, given the context with which her peers used it.
Teens generally use their social network of peers to interpret this language. But this is not enough for teens with autism.
They need a safe place to ask questions about unfamiliar words. How can they decide what activities and behaviours they want to engage in, if they can’t decode the term?
When I decided to write about my thoughts on sex education for teens with autism, I talked to my daughter first.
“Oh great, another person without autism, talking about autism,” she said.
So, I inquired, what did she feel was most important to talk about?
“I had to learn what aro-ace was on my own,” she said.
Aro-ace is a term used by people who define their sexual orientation as asexual and aromantic. This is the sexual orientation with which my daughter identifies. Recent studies suggest that people with autism are more likely to identify as non-heterosexual and/or gender diverse than their neurotypical peers. Education about gender and sexual orientation diversity is important for all students and it is especially important for teens with autism.
A cursory “that box is checked” discussion is not sufficient. For education to be accessible, it needs to be provided.
I recognize that, for the most part, teachers and sex educators are doing the best that they can to provide sex education in the classroom. And I get it, it sounds a bit unrealistic to expect a teacher to spend one-on-one time explaining sexual innuendos to my daughter.
But is it really an unrealistic expectation? In the Education Act and Ontarians with Disabilities Act, the Ontario government promises accessible education for those with disabilities. This is not happening with sex education.
Teens with autism need accessible sex education. Let’s give them what they’ve been promised.