Life / Health

Autistic teens and adults need plain talk on sex

Of all the slide show presentations in all the conference halls in the city of Toronto on Wednesday, it’s safe to wager that Dr. Peter Gerhardt gave the only one with a close-up shot of male genitalia.

For over 25 years, Gerhardt has worked with adolescents and adults who have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). He uses the photo to discuss sexuality: autism is a developmental disorder characterized by social and communication impairments. For many with autism, he says, prudish scientific drawings or inaccurate cartoons are simply confusing.

“We have to be very concrete.”

Fifteen years ago, when Gerhardt showed up at conferences to talk about adults with ASD, he would draw a small trickle of listeners.

At the Geneva Centre for Autism International Symposium on Wednesday, he gave a full-day session to a large, rapt crowd. The conference, which runs until Friday, has half a dozen sessions directed specifically at adults and teens.

Awareness is increasing, Gerhardt says, especially because of what some describe as “epidemic” numbers of children diagnosed in the last two decades now reaching adulthood.

But adults are still overlooked, he argues, compared to the attention focused on children’s issues. Sexuality is particularly ignored. Gerhardt, president of the American-based Organization for Autism Research, devoted nearly half of his talk on transitioning to adulthood to the topic of sex.

“When I talk to professional groups, they say ‘How do we get parents to want to address this?’ When I talk to parent groups, they say ‘How do we get professionals to want to address this?’ Part of it is that we’re both so reluctant to really talk about it.”

In a world where sexual “rights” are routinely discussed, Gerhardt told the audience that people with autism have as much a right to safe, healthy sex lives as the general population. But sex can present particular challenges for people with ASD.

“Because our guys have trouble understanding social nuance, it’s easy to get in trouble.” Saying that sexual experiences should happen in “private” is vague: how private? And people with autism can be particularly vulnerable to predators if they fail to recognize the signs of trouble.

“How do we get kids the skills?” Gerhardt asked.

Partly, by not being embarrassed by three-metre high slides of male reproductive bits. “If you giggle and blush, get somebody else to teach this stuff. Don’t use euphemisms,” like the birds and the bees, he says.

“At its heart, sexual education is about knowing your changing body, and about safety.”

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