Qualitative Exploration of Sexual Experiences Among Adults on the Autism Spectrum: Implications for Sex Education

Jessica Penwell Barnett Eleanor Maticka-Tyndale

First published online:

| DOI: https://doi.org/10.1363/47e5715
Abstract / Summary

The increasing prevalence of autism since the 1990s has led to growing demand for sex education that meets the needs of persons on the autism spectrum. Yet there is a dearth of research documenting the firsthand experiences and perspectives of autistic individuals.


A thematic analysis was conducted of in-depth, Internet-facilitated interviews with 24 adults on the autism spectrum who were recruited from Internet community spaces between November 2012 and May 2013. Inclusion criteria were self-identification as a person on the autism spectrum, being a U.S. resident, being aged 18 or older, and having the ability to communicate orally or through writing.


Participants were aged 18–61 and were living in the community at the time of interview, most with limited extrafamilial support. They were less likely than the general population to be heterosexual or gender-conforming and were more likely to have experienced romantic or sexual debut after age 18. Participants’ most common concerns were courtship difficulties and sensory dysregulation in the context of partnered sexuality. These concerns were exacerbated by inadequate and inappropriate sex education experiences. Participants addressed challenges by using sensory barriers (e.g., latex gloves); planning when and how to have sex; negotiating alternatives to sexual scripts predicated on nondisabled experience; and practicing explicit and intentional communication.


Individuals on the autism spectrum would benefit from sex education that normalizes differences (e.g., in identities and experiences of sexuality), is offered throughout young adulthood, addresses disability-relevant sensory and communication needs, and includes practicing neurotypical sociosexual norms.

Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 2015, 47(4):TK–TK, doi: 10.1363/47e5715

Author's Affiliations

Jessica Penwell Barnett is assistant professor, Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio; and an affiliate faculty member, University of Windsor, Windsor, Ontario, Canada. Eleanor Maticka-Tyndale is distinguished university professor and Canada Research Chair in Social Justice and Sexual Health, University of Windsor.


The views expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect those of the Guttmacher Institute.