About consent and sexual consent
Consent is agreeing to something or giving permission for something.
Sexual consent is agreeing to take part in sexual activity. Sexual consent is when all people involved:
- understand what kind of activity they’re agreeing to
- can choose freely to take part
- can say they want to take part clearly and enthusiastically
- can change their mind at any time and have this decision respected
- are awake, conscious and rational
- are over the legal age for sexual consent.
Sexual consent is essential for:
- kissing someone or touching any part of their body sexually – for example, rubbing thighs, genitals, bottoms or breasts
- having vaginal, anal or oral sex
- sending sexual messages or images
- not using condoms or other contraception.
Helping autistic children understand sexual consent: why it’s important
Autistic children develop sexually in the same way as other children do. When your child knows about getting and giving sexual consent, they’re more likely to have healthy, respectful, safe and enjoyable sexual experiences when they’re ready for them.
The best way to help your autistic child understand sexual consent is to introduce ideas about consent early. It’s best to start in the toddler years and have plenty of little conversations over time. This helps your child get used to being aware of personal boundaries and talking with you about relationships with other people, including sexual relationships. It also makes it more likely that your child will come to you if they have questions about relationships and sex.
To understand sexual consent, children need to understand social rules and cues, non-verbal language, other people’s thoughts and feelings, and their own sexual needs and feelings. This can be complicated for autistic children and teenagers, especially if they have sensory or communication difficulties. Depending on your child’s strengths and needs, you might need to work on these issues alongside your child’s understanding of sexual consent.
Introducing ideas about consent: autistic toddlers and preschoolers
You can help young autistic children learn about consent and personal boundaries long before you relate these issues to sex.
Here are some everyday ways to introduce ideas about consent to young autistic children:
- Ask for your child’s consent during personal care activities like giving your child a bath or helping your child get dressed. For example, ‘It’s bath time now. Shall I help you take off your clothes?’ Wait for a response before you help your child.
- Respect your child’s choices about touch. For example, if your child chooses not to kiss, cuddle or sit on someone’s knee, let them know this is OK. You could say, ‘Marli, it’s OK if you don’t want to kiss Aunty. Do you want to give her a high-five instead?’
- Teach your child about different body parts, including the proper names for their genitals.
- Do a circle of friends activity to help your child understand their own and other people’s personal boundaries.
- Introduce ideas and rules about touch. For example, if your child wants to touch your friend’s new baby, get them to ask your friend’s permission and show them how to touch the baby gently.
- Give your child chances to play with others. Even simple games like pat-a-cake, ring-o-rosies and snap can help your child develop social skills and encourage them to imagine what other people are thinking and feeling.
- Create rules about appropriate and inappropriate behaviour. For example, it’s OK to touch your own genitals, but only in private places when you’re alone.
- Read books together, like Let’s talk about body boundaries, consent & respect by Sarah Jennings, My underpants rule! by Kate and Rod Power and Everyone’s got a bottom by Tess Rowley.
Reinforcing ideas about consent: autistic school-age children and pre-teens
- Keep asking your child for consent. For example, ask for their consent to take their photo or before you send their photo to grandma. And if your child says no, respect their decision.
- Prepare your child for the physical changes and sexual feelings of puberty. For example, ‘When your body starts to change, you might start feeling attracted to other people. You might get a tingly feeling in your stomach and want to get close to a person. But touching can happen only if the other person says it’s OK. Visual supports and social stories can help with this.
- Expand on rules about what’s OK and not OK for someone to do to or around your child. Rules can help your child recognise unsafe sexual situations. For example, ‘It’s not OK for an adult to touch you in sexy places like under your swimmers or underwear’.
- Use TV shows or movies to point out what consent looks like. Or watch videos together, like Consent and communication, which uses animated characters to explain what consent is.
Getting and giving sexual consent: autistic teenagers
At this age, your teenage child needs to know how to get and give consent for sexual activity.
To help with this, you can try:
- setting rules
- explaining sexual cues
- using social stories.
Clear rules can help your child understand what makes something consensual. For example, it’s OK to:
- act sexy or have sex if you want to and feel happy and safe, and the other person wants to and feels happy and safe
- have sex if you’re old enough, and the other person is old enough
- say no to sexual activity if you are not ready, don’t feel safe or comfortable or don’t have contraception like condoms
- say yes to one sexual activity, but no to another activity
- change your mind at any stage of sex.
For example, it’s not OK to:
- pressure, beg or guilt the other person into having sex if they don’t want to
- pay or give gifts to the other person to get them to have sex with you
- assume someone else has given consent – you need to ask
- assume things are a sign of consent – for example, if another person invites you into a bedroom, sends sexual text messages or touches you
- have sex with someone like a teacher, sports coach or health professional
- have sex with family members
- have sex in a public place.
To reinforce the rules, you can use visual supports, social stories, repetition and real-life teachable moments or examples from TV shows, movies, books and media stories.
You also need to make sure that your child understands that following these rules is essential to keep them and everyone else safe.
Explanations of sexual cues
If you explain sexual cues to your child, it can help your child spot these cues and respond appropriately.
You could use pictures, photos or animations with different facial expressions and body language to show what people look like when they feel happy, interested, unhappy or uncomfortable in sexy situations.
It’s important for teenagers to understand that sex is about pleasure. It should always feel good to you, and it should make the other person feel good too.
You can use social stories to help your child understand getting and giving consent. Here are some examples.
A social story about getting consent
I want to kiss my partner. I always need to ask them if it’s OK first.
This is called asking for consent.
Consent is making sure my partner wants me to kiss them.
Asking for consent means I respect my partner.
I will ask, ‘Can I kiss you please?’
I will wait for the answer.
If my partner says yes, I can kiss them.
If my partner says no, I can’t kiss them. We can talk instead.
A social story about giving consent
My partner wants to kiss me. I always need to tell them it’s OK first.
This is called giving my consent.
Consent is letting my partner know it’s OK to kiss me.
I can give consent if I feel happy and safe.
I can say yes if I want my partner to kiss me.
I can say no if I don’t want my partner to kiss me.
If I say yes now, I can say no later if I change my mind.
If my partner tries to kiss me when I say no, I should say ‘Stop!’
If my partner doesn’t stop, I should get help from an adult.
You’ll probably need to go over these messages many times. Try to be patient with your child – and yourself. It might help to share experiences and get support from other parents. You could try online or face-to-face support groups.