Get Real! How Can I Give My Sister Sex Ed?

Heather Corinna

The basics of a good sex education, according to me, address the body and self as a whole, including sexual anatomy and reproduction, sexual identity, sexual feelings, personal limits and boundaries.

RespectIsSexy asks:

am 17, and I have a 15 year old sister who is Autistic. I also come
from an EXTREMELY Catholic family. I never got a sex talk – I
straight-up asked my dad what sex meant when I was 9 or 10, and he gave
me some very unhelpful answer about a gift that God intended to be
shared between a man and a woman in marriage. I, however, had enough
resources like and, you know, friends with older sisters to
eventually get the full picture. My sister does not.

Katie knows about menstruation and deals very well with it, but at
last check she barely knew what her parts were and she does not appear
to be receiving any meaningful sex education in school. But Katie is physically mature,
and I’d bet almost anything that she’s experiencing age-appropriate
sexual feelings.

We share a room, and often if I walk in unannounced I’ll
find her seemingly lying on the bed doing absolutely nothing, looking
irritatedly at me – the exact position I can be found in if interrupted
masturbating. In light of this, I really think it’s necessary that she
receive some kind of sex education right about now. The only time the
subject ever came up between her and my father, all he said was that
that thing was called her vagina and she shouldn’t let anyone touch it
until she was married. Yeah, THAT’S helpful.

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So it’s going to be MY job to give my sister some kind of
age-appropriate sex education before I go off to college, or she’s
never going to get it. Where the hell do I START? What should I DO?
It’s difficult to determine what age-appropriate sexual education is
for someone whose mental age lags years behind her physical age, but I
think that it’s about time to start her off with the basics that most
people learn around ages nine and ten – at the very least I think she
ought to know her plumbing, and preferably the boys’ too. And I think
she needs to learn the tab-A-into-slot-B mechanics within the next few
years, if not right now. It would be nice if you could recommend a book
or something like that made for elementary-school students that talks
about sexuality and the reproductive systems in a
scientific-but-not-too-technical, kid-friendly way. Is there any such
book ANYWHERE that will talk about sexual arousal and that sort of
thing without actually talking about sex?

Book or no book, I think I’ll probably have to have an actual Sex
Talk with her, or a series of them, and I’m at a loss for how to handle
that. How on Earth do I introduce it? What if she doesn’t understand?
What if she reacts poorly? What if she brings up her new learning at
the dinner table? Special needs children can not keep secrets. It’s
absurd enough that I have to sex educate my sister behind my parents’
back without my getting bawled out for it. What if she brings it up at
SCHOOL? In your opinion as a sex educator, what would be the best way
to broach the subject and conduct the conversation, and what
information do you think should be covered? Do you have any experience
or know anyone with experience in sex education for teenagers with
special needs? You’d think loads of people must have faced this issue
before me…

Heather answers:

Before I say anything else, I want to say how fantastic it is that
you’re looking to help a sibling with sex information and education,
and to be an advocate for your sister in this. Young people, period, so
often get gypped out of good, complete sex information — as you know
too well — but those with special needs usually get cheated even more.
You’re my shero today!

I was at a fantastic disability panel at a conference last week (here’s the whole text of that panel for you,
and a bunch of great resources are linked there), and one thing those
on the panel reminded us about was that rates of sexual abuse are
around double for those with disabilities. Rates of sexual
abuse for the disabled are 1.5 – 2 times higher than for those without
disabilities, which is massive. In 2002, The Alberta Committee
of Citizens with Disabilities stated that 83% of women with disability
will become sexual abuse victims with disability in their lifetime. So,
while information on sex, reproduction, health, healthy relationships
and pleasure are important for everyone, as is information on abuse,
education that helps protect your sister from sexual abuse is even more
important than usual.

The bare basics of a good sex education, according to me, are going
to address the body and self as a whole, including sexual anatomy and
reproduction, care of our sexual health, sexual identity (bear in mind
that we don’t know what your sister’s orientation is, so even the Tab
A/Slot B stuff may not be the tabs and slots you’re thinking of, so I’d
be sure not to presume she’ll be sexual with men or only men), sexual
feelings in general, whether they be self-directed or about others,
personal limits and boundaries, healthy and unhealthy sexual and
relationship dynamics, and ways to communicate openly and well
(verbally, through touch and body language, or any of her unique or
preferred modes of communication). I always like a very strong emphasis
on autonomy and our right to privacy (as well as what is and isn’t
generally considered socially appropriate per public sex), and I’d say
that’s all the more important for someone with a disability: they tend
to get even more messages than most that their bodies are not truly or
completely their own and that they are not entitled to privacy.
Additionally, I’d suggest talking about feelings of social isolation
and discomfort she may have because of her autism, as that will very
likely be a sexuality issue for her. I’d also do all you can to empower
her with the understanding that it is no less normal or appropriate for
her to be and feel sexual than it is anyone else: that message alone,
even if you gave her nothing else, is so powerful.

The actual mechanics of sex — as in, this goes here with that,
wiggle your hips like this, use your tongue like that — are actually
something I think fewer people need, period, particularly when we’re
talking about learning those abstractly, rather than with partners
which is how any of us usually learns the how-to. If she can get an
understanding of anatomy and accurate sexual anatomy, of limits and
boundaries, and have some sense of what desire, pleasure and intimacy
are, the rest follows pretty easily if and when she gets to having
sexual partners. It’s tough to try and tell someone about mechanics in
any depth because it’s all so individual to each of us per what we and
partners like and dislike, do and don’t want to do: the trick is to
learn how to listen and communicate around sex so that when we are at
sexual partnership, we learn and teach each other well in those
partnerships per what we like and don’t. Plus, your experience of sex
as someone without autism may be different than hers: for instance,
you’re probably not as sensitive to touch as she is, so your ideas
about mechanics may not jibe with her experiences in her own body.

Know that people with disability usually go through similar stages
of development as their peers without disability: often people with
disabilities are seen or treated as either totally asexual or as
hyper-sexualized, but the truth is that overall, disabled people tend to develop like the rest of us and have the same diversity of sexuality as the rest of us.
Developmentally disabled people just may think differently about it in
terms of the way they think about anything differently, and may be
different in some of the intellectual or social aspects of that
development, so will often need to be taught about sex in a way that
works for them uniquely. And again, how someone with a given disability
literally feels with sex, what their experiences are like, can
sometimes be different than the experiences of those without

If you’re looking to build a curriculum for your sister, I have a
bunch of book suggestions — not just one! — which I’ll order for you
in terms of ages and stages. Most of them are colorfully illustrated,
which should be a big help. I’d say most of them also leave a lot of
room for difference of experience and identity, though some do better
than others.

  • It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health by Robie H. Harris
  • Kids First Book About Sex by Joani Blank (This is out of
    print, but it is the only children’s book on sex I know of which I
    think really addresses pleasure in a meaningful, age-appropriate way. I
    actually have a copy and permission to publish it through Scarleteen,
    but have not yet gotten to do that yet. I’m sorry I don’t have it up
    for you online, but I will have it here for everyone soon. You can
    probably find a used copy in the meantime, though.)
  • Your Body Belongs to You by Cornelia Maude Spelman (I list this because, again, a clear address of boundaries per abuse protections will be important)
  • What’s Happening to Me?: A Guide to Puberty by Peter Mayle
  • Where Did I Come From? by Peter Mayle (I confess, this was my first sex ed book as a child, and I have a very soft spot for it)
  • Growing Up: It’s a Girl Thing by Mavis Jukes
  • Taking Care of Myself: A Hygiene, Puberty and Personal Curriculum for Young People with Autism by Mary Wrobel
  • Deal with It! A Whole New Approach to Your Body, Brain, and Life as a gURL
    by Esther Drill, Heather McDonald and Rebecca Odes (Maybe you can pass
    on some of the great things gave to you to your sister this way
  • S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-To-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get
    You Through High School and College (This is the sexuality guide for
    teens and young adults I penned)

I put a pretty big range of materials in there for you. My
suggestion would be that you look at some of the books a bit down the
page I have suggested for you to read for yourself, and also to trust
your own understanding of your sister — which is clearly exceptional
— and just pick and choose what you want to use. That will probably
mean using parts of any number of those books, rather than whole books.
You may want to use this page from here, this chapter from there, and
also do some adapting of your own in terms of how you translate some of
the material for your sister.

You might also want to look at some of the sex education materials
online here at Scarleteen (or at gURL, since you found what you needed
for yourself there), and adapt them to best suit your sister.

You can take a look at those books or materials online and, trusting
your judgment, figure out what is best to start with. I’d suggest
starting with the simplest, and also the most basic: the books for the
youngest readers which focus mostly on anatomy, boundaries and basic
sexual development. You might even just start with the first few of
them and put them on a table between you and see which she is drawn to
on her own. As the kind of educator I am (I’ve been teaching in various
settings for close to twenty years now, and actually started my
teaching career with developmentally disabled teens and adults), my
feeling is that what we want to do is get a sense of what a given
student’s unique needs are, starting from the simplest place we can. If
in doing that, they show us a level of boredom or mastery of the
subject when we do that, we keep moving it up until we get to where
they are. It’s also a good idea to simply be as attentive as you can to
her questions and statements, and be responsive to those: often, if we
just actively listen to someone we are teaching well, they’ll tell us
their needs and wants quite directly.

As far as introducing the subject, it seems to me like in some way,
you have an easy in because of your experience with your parents. You
could absolutely tell her that when you were growing up, you felt like
there were some things you needed to know about your body and yourself
that you did not know. You could suggest to her that she might feel the
same way, ask if she does, and ask if she’d like you to give her some
of that information. Given how close you two are in age, and given
she’s spent her whole life with you and you obviously have a lot of
love for her, it sounds to me like she’s going to feel safe and trust
you very easily. You might even just tell her that this is something
older sisters tend to do for younger sisters, given that it really is.
In the case she doesn’t understand what you’re talking about with her,
ask her questions to clarify what she needs and how she needs this
presented, and just be sure you’re not giving her too much information
at once. By all means, getting all of this information to her will
require far more than one talk: heck, anyone needs more than just one
talk about sex and sexuality, despite the common idea that parents have
"The" Sex Talk, rather than a series of them.

You will likely need to tailor or simplify your language sometimes,
or find ways of presenting things that is more than just verbal: such
as by providing visual representations, or through activities that
involve touch or other kinds of interactivity. You probably already
have those skills down given how long you have interacted with her for:
you’re just applying them to something new.

For example, if we’re talking about personal boundaries of her body,
you can ask her to touch, on her own body, places that are hers alone
or to draw them. You can practice some sexual refusals with her, and
have her say her own refusal scripts out loud with you. If you’re
talking about sexual orientation, drawing stick figures of different
sets of partners per gender may be needed: often, autistic people do
very well with visual learning. I’d suggest you do anything you’re
having her do: make activities shared, rather than just about her. The
Autism Research Institute has a good, basic page on learning styles you
might find helpful here.
I’d just add that you’ll want to bear in mind with anything you might
teach her through touch that with any kind of touching of her, you’re
giving her information about boundaries. So, do be sure anything where
you are touching her is in alignment with what you’re telling her about
her right to boundaries and ownership of her own body. You’ll also want
to bear her own hypersensitivities or hyposensitivities in mind when
teaching her, sticking to things she reacts well to to use them TO
teach, and avoiding anything she tends to react poorly to or become
upset by.

I hear your concerns about her reacting badly, but as a sex
educator, I can assure you that you probably don’t need to have those
concerns, for a few reasons. For starters, any of the material I
suggested is sensitive, it’s not salacious, and it is all meant for
young people. As well, when we’re teaching anything, one of the first
things we tend to learn is that when someone isn’t interested in or
ready for given content, they tend just to be disinterested, or not to
retain that knowledge, rather than to freak out about it. In the case
she is upset by anything you say or seems scared, you can ask her about
those feelings and talk them out with her, and you can also remind her
that you are there for her as a support. However, if you want to know
more about teaching her in general, you might see if you can’t chat
with one of her teachers about general issues of teaching her and what
has worked best for her with other subjects. Too? Just having a teacher
who clearly cares for us and respects us, and demonstrates that
clearly, is usually all any of us will need, regardless of our
abilities, to feel safe, even with touchy or tough subjects. She’s
already got that with you.

I have some books for you to read yourself:

  • Autism – Asperger’s and Sexuality: Puberty and Beyond by Jerry Newport and Mary Newport (Both of whom are autistic themselves)
  • Sex, Sexuality And The Autism Spectrum by Wendy Lawson
  • Ten Talks Parents Must Have with Their Children About Sex and Character by Pepper Schwartz and Dominic Cappello
  • Sibling Stories: Reflections on Life with a Brother or Sister on the Autism Spectrum by Lynne Stern Feiges and Mary Jane Weiss (Mostly, this is to support you, and also because I think you’ll really enjoy it)

Here are a couple good links online on sexuality and autism:

  • Sex Education for Children and Teens with Autism
    • Sexuality and Autism
    • While I’m talking about things for you, I want to make sure you’re not shouldering more than you can handle.

      I think your sister is very lucky to have you, and that it’s great
      you want to help her with her sexuality education. But at the same
      time, I also want to be sure you’re not essentially parenting her
      yourself, because you don’t have the kinds of resources your parents
      probably have, including the support of others in parenting someone.
      This is also a big project. I think it’s a manageable one, but it’d be really ideal if you had some help and some extra support with it.

      One way I’d make sure you’re caring for yourself in all of this is
      by doing what you can to assure that you don’t basically wind up
      demonized for giving her this information, and that you also have some
      help with this. Does your sister have at least one good healthcare
      provider, teacher or caretaker you feel like will be supportive of
      this, and might also help you out with some of this education? If so,
      that’d be really ideal, both to help share the load, to have as good an
      idea as you can of what your sister’s needs are, but also to have
      someone who might be able to talk to your parents about the need for
      this information. A good professional with this will probably also
      point out to your parents that many teens — with or without
      disabilities — don’t get all or even most of their sexuality
      information from parents, and many do feel most comfortable talking
      with someone like a friend, a doctor, a teacher or an older sibling. I
      think it’s going to be much better for both of you if your parents know
      what is going on than if you’re trying to hide this in any way.

      You might also want to share some of the information and books on
      sexuality and autism with your parents. I recognize this is all doubly
      challenging since your parents have not seen a need for either you or
      your sister to get any sexuality information, and because of their
      religious beliefs, but again, I want to be sure you are as well
      supported as possible, as is your sister. You’re right: expecting her
      to keep secrets is not at all reasonable, and I’d want to be as sure as
      we could that neither of you felt like you had to, for the well-being
      of you both. What I brought up earlier about her risks of sexual abuse
      might be an easier-in with them: if you make this about protecting her
      (which it is, mind, that’s just not all it is about), and can make
      clear how that is even more important for her than it is for those
      without disabilities, it might be an easier sell. It may be that you
      and your parents can reach an agreement about at least getting her some
      of the most basic information. Their discomfort with sexuality and them
      being very conservative about it is going to be an issue, for sure, but
      it seems possible to at least get on the same page about her safety,
      about her understanding her body and human reproduction, about her
      developing healthy limits and boundaries and ways she can express
      those. And I’d say that kind of information is what’s really critical,
      anyway, and that you can likely sneak in some pieces about pleasure and
      identity in that stuff under the radar.

      I’ll be honest and say that I’m not sure how you can really do
      completely on the down-low, particularly when it comes both to
      protecting yourself AND not having things your sister says result in
      your parents freaking out with her, which could obviously impact her
      negatively. But if that is what you wind up having to do, I’d see if
      you can’t find someone you know will be supportive of your efforts who
      your parents respect to call on if you wind up caught in the act, as it
      were, and need some support.

      In terms of your concerns that she would share this information at
      school, I’d not worry about that. Yes, she might, but these are not
      issues any teacher should be surprised to hear someone her age bring
      up. It also should not surprise anyone teaching the developmentally
      disabled to have them brought up very candidly or out-of-context. In
      other words, my advice would be for you not to worry about her teachers
      doing their job: you have enough on your plate as it is, and you are
      not breaking any laws or doing anything wrong by giving her this
      information. In other words, you’re not at risk of getting into trouble
      from the school if she discloses any of the information you have given

      I know that was a lot of information, even though I feel like I
      barely scratched the surface. But hopefully, it will get you started,
      and those books I suggested for you will absolutely take things from

      Lastly? If you need some more help with this, and have a tough time
      finding others to help, or even just need some support as a caretaker,
      please feel free to come back here or to our message boards and ask for
      more help, other books, or extra information. I’d be happy to give you
      any more help that you need and that I can provide.

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