Typical and healthy sexual behaviour: autistic children and teenagers
Most sexual behaviour in children and teenagers is a typical and healthy part of development. For example, children often explore their own bodies and the bodies of other children by looking or touching. Teenagers might masturbate in private or be sexually active with a consenting person of a similar age.
You don’t usually need to be concerned about this behaviour.
Problematic and harmful sexual behaviour: autistic children and teenagers
Some sexual behaviour and sex play isn’t typical in childhood or adolescence and might be cause for concern. This is problematic sexual behaviour. Examples of this behaviour in autistic children and teenagers include:
- a child persistently showing their genitals or bottom
- a teenage child touching their own genitals in public, or following or frequently contacting someone they like.
Some sexual behaviour isn’t typical and might be a sign of something more serious. This is harmful sexual behaviour. Examples of this behaviour include a child or teenage child forcing, coercing or threatening a younger child to take part in sexual touching.
If you see these or other examples of problematic sexual behaviour in autistic children and teenagers, it’s important to get professional advice. Your GP, paediatrician, child and family health nurse or other health professional can refer you to a professional who can help.
Autistic children and teenagers are no more likely to engage in harmful sexual behaviour than typically developing children and teenagers.
Problematic and harmful sexual behaviour and autistic children: why it happens
Autistic children and teenagers might engage in problematic or harmful sexual behaviour because of their:
- social skills difficulties
- sensory issues
- difficulties with understanding how other people think and feel, or how their behaviour affects other people
- narrow interests, which could include unusual sexual interests.
When you understand why your child is behaving in a particular way, it can help you choose the right strategy for managing and changing the behaviour. There are suggestions below for handling problematic sexual behaviour related to each of these areas of difficulty.
Social skills difficulties
Autistic children and teenagers can have trouble reading other people’s facial expressions, body language, and behaviour cues. They might not understand the differences between public and private places and behaviours. And they might miss out on learning socially appropriate dating behaviour from friends.
These social skills difficulties can sometimes lead to problematic sexual behaviour. For example, autistic children might not understand the difference between:
- playing chasey with classmates in the schoolyard and playing chasey with schoolmates while naked in the swimming pool changing rooms
- looking at their genitals or masturbating in the bedroom, and doing this in the classroom.
Autistic teenagers might:
- have trouble expressing sexual attraction, so they say sexual thoughts aloud or stare for too long at another person’s breasts or buttocks
- misinterpret friendliness as flirtation or sexual interest, so they make unwanted sexual advances when this isn’t appropriate.
Strategies to help with problematic sexual behaviour related to social skills difficulties
If your autistic child is behaving in sexually problematic ways and you think it’s because of social skills difficulties, here are some things you can try:
- Work on your child’s understanding of private and public body parts. This can help your child understand what’s OK to do in private but not in public.
- Help your child learn about personal boundaries with a circle of friends activity. Personal boundaries are limits and rules about how we behave around others and how other people behave around us.
- Explain sexual feelings, relationships and health to your child as they get older. Visual supports and social stories can help you with this.
You could also create some rules to help your child. Here are some examples:
- It’s OK to touch your genitals, but only in private places when you’re alone.
- It’s not OK to touch someone where their swimwear or underwear would cover.
- It’s not OK to touch another person’s genitals unless they say you can.
Depending on your child’s developmental level, visual supports might help your child understand the rules.
Some autistic children and teenagers seek out sensory experiences. For example, they might wear tight-fitting clothing, look for things to touch, hear or taste, or rub their arms and legs against things.
This might lead them to behave in sexually inappropriate ways. For example, they might:
- touch their genitals in public
- rub their genitals on objects or other people
- touch other people’s clothing or hair without understanding how that might be seen as sexual.
Strategies to help with problematic sexual behaviour related to sensory issues
If your autistic child is behaving in sexually problematic ways and you think it’s because of sensory issues, it’s important to reduce the risk of any inappropriate sexual behaviour.
You can do this by helping your child understand that touching others is not OK unless they’ve asked the other person first, and the other person has said it’s OK. And that it’s never OK if the other person is a younger child.
You might also need to find something else for your child to touch. An occupational therapist can recommend toys and equipment that can meet your child’s sensory needs in a more appropriate way.
Difficulties understanding other people’s thoughts and feelings
Autistic children and teenagers can find it difficult to understand that other people might have different thoughts and feelings from them.
This might lead to inappropriate sexual behaviours. For example, they might think that if they want to have sex, the other person also wants to.
Strategies to help with problematic sexual behaviour related to difficulties understanding thoughts and feelings
You can help your autistic child understand other people’s thoughts and feelings by:
- pointing out that different family members like different foods or are afraid of different things
- using pictures of different facial expressions and body language to show what people look like when they feel happy, interested, unhappy or uncomfortable
- talking about consent and how your child needs to ask before kissing or touching someone in a sexual way. For example, your child should say, ‘I would like to kiss you. Would that be OK?’ and wait for the person to say yes before kissing them.
Autistic children and teenagers can have narrow interests – for example, superheroes or the solar system. These interests can sometimes be sexual – for example, sexual body parts.
If your child has developed an interest in something sexual, you can try shifting the interest to something related but not sexual. For example, you could expand an interest in sexual body parts to the whole body by helping your child learn about anatomy or biology.
If autistic children or teenagers are engaging in harmful sexual behaviour, it’s essential to get professional support. If children get support for harmful sexual behaviour, they’re unlikely to continue this behaviour when they’re adults.