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Autism Expert Peter Gerhardt Visits SARRC to Talk Sex and Relationships

By: Amy Kenzer, BCBA-D, Director of Clinical Services, SARRC

World reknowned autism expert, Peter Gerhardt, Ed. D, spoke to more than a hundred autism providers and individuals and families impacted by autism on Friday at SARRC in Phoenix during a workshop titled, “Bridges to Adulthood: Sexuality and Relationships.  His overall message of the session: “All sexual behavior is social behavior.”

Dr. Gerhardt informed the audience that when it comes to sexuality and autism, there is very little research, but what research we do have tells us two things:

1) People with autism are just like anybody else when it comes to their interest, desire, and need to know about sex, sexuality, and relationships; and 
2) We are simply not doing enough to educate them about it. 

Autism spectrum disorder is characterized by social deficits. That makes it tremendously difficult to navigate the complex world of dating and relationships.

To make his point, Peter asked the audience to come up with as many different names as they could for the body parts arm, leg, and head. Then he asked the audience to come up with as many different names as they could for breasts, male genitalia, female genitalia. The difference was both humorous and staggering. Imagine having difficulty learning body parts and understanding euphemisms or metaphors, and then trying to keep up with all the different subtle and complex ways we talk about sex – without getting any formal instruction and certainly not the informal ‘instruction’ that comes from our peers. Without education in this area, we leave teens and adults impacted by autism to muddle through the best they can and they are likely to make mistakes. Unfortunatley, a mistake with sexual behavior could have terrible consequences – emotionally, physically, and legally.

Gerhardt doesn’t expect research to support this sensitive topic anytime soon, but he advocates for more education and discussions with those with autism early on. Broadly, he believes, education should start as early as preschool with teaching the difference between boys and girls, labeling body parts, identifying women’s and men’s restroom signs, the difference between public and private behavior, the ability to say ‘no,’ and to make decisions.  Children should be taught to use the bathroom independently, to take showers on their own, and who can help them in the bathroom and who can’t. Finally, Gerhardt stressed the need to teach kids about puberty before they start it.  He says we can’t wait until they are adults to teach them about their bodies, the social world related to their bodies, or the navigation tools to be successful in that highly complex sexual world.

Talking about this stuff is difficult (even writing about this stuff is tough!).  Peter’s advice for parents, grandparents, and caregivers: Take a deep breath, practice using the correct  words out loud, and then begin education your child, adolescent or teen.

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