Research Snapshot: Sexual development in young people with autism spectrum disorder

What you need to know

The sexuality of individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a topic of growing interest. The research, however, shows a lack of sex education tailored to the needs of these individuals. The study reported here was conducted in order to evaluate the effectiveness of programs dealing with the sexual development in young people with ASD and to identify good practices and the needs of this population in the area of sexual development. The meta-analysis focused on five studies measuring the effectiveness of two programs: TTT (Tackling Teenage Training) and HR (Healthy Relationship & Autism). Overall, the participants in both programs tended to be more knowledgeable about sexual development. The authors feel that additional research on the existing programs is needed in order to better understand the practices that address the needs of young people with ASD and the factors affecting the efficacy of these interventions.

What is this research about?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by deficits in the areas of social communication and interaction, as well as by the presence of narrow interests and repetitive behaviours. The sexuality of individuals with ASD has become a topic of growing interest as the number of adolescents diagnosed with ASD increases. The studies report a lack of formal education on sexuality tailored to the learning needs of adolescents with ASD despite the stated need and desire on their part to form emotional relationships.

Although there are promising practices for this population, a number of questions remain about the effectiveness of existing programs. Therefore, the researchers conducted a meta-analysis of the primary studies in order to evaluate the efficacy of interventions focusing on the sexual development in individuals with ASD levels 1 and 2. An additional objective was to learn more about good practices in this population and its needs in the area of sexual development.

What did the researchers do?

The researchers conducted a meta-analysis of the primary studies on the efficacy of interventions focusing on the sexual development in individuals with ASD levels 1 and 2, that is to say those able to engage in social interaction and to communicate satisfactorily with some degree of support.  The analysis focused primarily on young people aged 16 to 25 years. 

What did the researchers find?

The meta-analysis identified five primary studies whose objective was to evaluate a program or intervention aimed at supporting the development of multiple interpersonal skills in preparation for the transition from adolescence to adulthood.

Two programs emerged from these studies:

According to the five studies identified by the meta‚ÄĎanalysis, intervention programs focusing on the development of psychosexual knowledge in young people with ASD are very effective, meaning that, overall, participants in either program were more knowledgeable in matters of sexuality. The researchers did not note any link between participant age and intervention efficacy.

The authors also identified needs specific to individuals with ASD, as well as practices conducive to the development and harmonious expression of sexual development in young people with ASD. Practices cited by the authors include theoretical and practical instruction on sexual behaviour, sexual autonomy, basic hygiene and relationship development, facilitator-moderated programs, specifically programs moderated by a certified facilitator, and support from parents who, by giving their children homework, contribute to the generalization of learning.

Limitations of the research

The research team identified several limitations of the meta-analysis findings:

How can you use this research?

The authors stress that more research on the effectiveness of existing programs is required in order to better understand practices that address the needs of young people with ASD and factors that can affect the efficacy of these interventions. Moreover, the authors feel that the monitoring of evolving advances in the area of psychosocial knowledge and its impact on the development and expression of sexuality in young people with ASD is essential. Such research would help to identify guidelines for the development of sex education resources tailored to the needs of adolescents with ASD and founded on evidence-based data.

About the researchers

Kevin Dubé,1 Eve-Line Bussières,1 Marie-Hélène Poulin2

1 Department of Psychology, Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières (UQTR)

2 Department of Psychoeducation, Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue (UQAT) 

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