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Tackling Teenage Sexuality

Guest post by Kirstin Greaves-Lord, PhD, head of the Autism Research Program of the Erasmus Medical Center and The Yulius Academy, in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and Esther van der Vegt, PhD, of The Yulius Academy, in the Netherlands. (Shown in photo: Dr. Greaves-Lord; Kirsten Visser, MSc, PhD; Linda Dekker, MSc, PhD; Frieda Boudesteijn; Dr. van der Vegt)

We developed the Tackling Teenage training program to help those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) navigate the psychological and sexual development challenges of adolescence.

Of course, adolescence can be challenging for anyone – with its many physical, social and emotional changes, including the development of romantic interest, relationships and sexuality. Healthy psychosexual development requires a variety of social skills. They include sensitivity to the social signals, needs and boundaries of others. Clearly, mastery of these skills can present special difficulties for teens with ASD.

There is not yet a lot of research on this topic. What few studies we have suggest that the needs and wants of adolescents with ASD are similar to those of typically developing teenagers. But teens affected with autism often lack the necessary skills, knowledge and social insights.

In part this may be because they tend to have fewer socially active friendships. As a result, they may not be getting enough information and feedback from their peers. In addition, many teens with ASD have difficulties processing information, and this reduces what they learn in school “sex ed” classes.

To overcome these barriers, we developed Tackling Teenage Training. It consists of 18 weekly one-on-one counseling sessions with a professional trainer. Discussion topics include puberty-related physical changes, relationships, sexual preference, safe sex, setting boundaries and respecting boundaries. Goals include improving knowledge, skills and confidence and reducing inappropriate behaviors and sexual vulnerability.

The results of our pilot study on the training were promising. Teens and their parents reported real progress in skills and confidence. We’ll be conducting a larger randomized controlled trial this fall.

Tackling Teenage Training has been translated into Spanish and English and is currently being piloted at the L’Hospital Clinic in Barcelona. We also hope to expand our project to the United Kingdom and the United States. We’d love your feedback and questions. Please leave a comment or visit us at our Tackling Teenage website.

Editor’s note: Thanks to your support, Autism Speaks is funding a number of studies aimed at improving life skills and quality of life in teens and young adults. You can explore these and other donor-supported research programs using our Grant Search engine.

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.