Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders

, Volume 49, Issue 9, pp 3638–3655 | Cite as

Sexuality in the Autism Spectrum Study (SASS): Reports from Young Adults and Parents

  • Kathrin HartmannEmail author
  • Maria R. Urbano
  • C. Teal Raffaele
  • Lydia R. Qualls
  • Takeshia V. Williams
  • Clay Warren
  • Nicole L. Kreiser
  • David E. Elkins
  • Stephen I. Deutsch
Original Paper


Previous research indicates that although those with ASD desire sexual relationships, they may not effectively engage in romantic and intimate interactions. The purpose of this study was to compare reports from young adults with ASD and parents from the same families on the young adult’s sexual behavior, experiences, knowledge, and communication. 100 young adults (18–30 years) and parents completed an online survey. Results indicated that young adults reported more typical privacy and sexual behaviors, and higher sexual victimization than their parents reported on their behalf. Our findings indicated that individuals with ASD desire and pursue sexual relationships typical of most people and suggest the need for sex education and communication about topics generally covered for neurotypically developing young adults.


Sexuality Young adults Parents Family Autism spectrum disorder 


Author Contributions

All listed authors were involved in the creation and revisions to this original manuscript and approved its final revision for submission.


No funding was granted for this research study.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. This study was approved by the appropriate institutional review board.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


  1. Allison, C., Auyeung, B., & Baron-Cohen, S. (2012). Toward brief “Red Flags” for autism screening: The short autism spectrum quotient and the short quantitative checklist in 1,000 cases and 3,000 controls. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 51(2), 202–212. Scholar
  2. Ballan, M. S. (2012). Parental perspectives of communication about sexuality in families of children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 42(5), 676–684. Scholar
  3. Baron-Cohen, S., Wheelwright, S., Skinner, R., Martin, J., & Clubley, E. (2001). The autism-spectrum quotient (AQ): Evidence from Asperger syndrome/high-functioning autism, males and females, scientists and mathematicians. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 31(1), 5–17.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  4. Booth, T., Murray, A. L., McKenzie, K., Kuenssberg, R., O’Donnell, M., & Burnett, H. (2013). Brief report: An evaluation of the AQ-10 as a brief screening instrument for ASD in adults. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 32(12), 2997–3000. Scholar
  5. Brown-Lavoie, S. M., Viecili, M. A., & Weiss, J. A. (2014). Sexual knowledge and victimization in adults with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. Scholar
  6. Byers, E. S., Nichols, S., & Voyer, S. D. (2013). Challenging stereotypes: Sexual functioning of single adults with high functioning autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 43(11), 2617–2627. Scholar
  7. Byers, E. S., Nichols, S., Voyer, S. D., & Reilly, G. (2012). Sexual well-being of a community sample of high functioning adults on the autism spectrum who have been in a romantic relationship. Autism, 17(4), 418–433. Scholar
  8. Caputo, R. K. (2009). Adolescent sexual debut: A multi-system perspective of ethnic and racial differences. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 19(4), 330–358. Scholar
  9. Cridland, E. K., Jones, S. C., Caputi, P., & Magee, C. A. (2014). Being a girl in a boys’ world: Investigating the experiences of girls with autism spectrum disorders during adolescence. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 44(6), 1261–1274. Scholar
  10. D’Augelli, A. R., Grossman, A. H., & Starks, M. T. (2005). Parents’ awareness of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youths’ sexual orientation. Journal of Marriage and Family, 67, 474–482. Scholar
  11. Dewinter, J., Vermeiren, R., Vanwesenbeeck, I., Lobbestael, J., & Van Nieuwenhuizen, C. (2015). Sexuality in adolescent boys with autism spectrum disorder: Self-reported behaviours and attitudes. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 45(3), 731–741. Scholar
  12. Dewinter, J., Vermeiren, R., Vanwesenbeeck, I., & Van Nieuwenhuizen, C. (2016). Parental awareness of sexual experience in adolescent boys with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 46(2), 713–719. Scholar
  13. Doornwaard, S. M., Bickham, D. S., Rich, M., Vanwesenbeeck, I., van den Eijnden, R. J., & ter Bogt, T. F. (2014). Sex-related online behaviors and adolescents’ body and sexual self-perceptions. Pediatrics, 134(6), 1103–1110. Scholar
  14. Eastgate, G., Scheermeyer, E., van Driel, M. L., & Lennox, N. (2012). Intellectual disability, sexuality and sexual abuse prevention—A study of family members and support workers. Australian Family Physician, 41(3), 135–139.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  15. Gardella, J. H., Nichols-Hadeed, C. A., Mastrocinque, J. M., Stone, J. T., Coates, C. A., Sly, C. J., et al. (2015). Beyond Clery Act statistics: A closer look at college victimization based on self-report data. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 30(4), 640–658. Scholar
  16. George, R., & Stokes, M. A. (2018). Gender identity and sexual orientation in autism spectrum disorder. Autism, 22(8), 970–982. Scholar
  17. Gilmour, L., Schalomon, P. M., & Smith, V. (2011). Sexuality in a community based sample of adults with autism spectrum disorder. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 6, 313–318. Scholar
  18. Gilmour, L., Smith, V., & Schalomon, M. (2014). Sexuality and ASD: Current state of research. In V. Patel, V. Preedy, & C. Martin (Eds.), Comprehensive guide to autism. New York: Springer.Google Scholar
  19. Hannah, L. A., & Stagg, S. D. (2016). Experiences of sex education and sexual awareness in young adults with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 46, 3678–3687. Scholar
  20. Hellemans, H., Colson, K., Verbraeken, C., Vermeiren, R., & Deboutte, D. (2007). Sexual behavior in high-functioning male adolescents and young adults with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 37(2), 260–269. Scholar
  21. Hellemans, H., Roeyers, H., Leplae, W., Dewaele, T., & Deboutte, D. (2010). Sexual behavior in male adolescents and young adults with autism spectrum disorder and borderline/mild mental retardation. Sexuality and Disability, 28(2), 93–104. Scholar
  22. Hockenberry-Eaton, M., Richman, M. J., DiIorio, C. K., Rivero, T., & Maibach, E. (1996). Mother and adolescent knowledge of sexual development: The effects of gender, age, and sexual experience. Adolescence, 31(121), 35–47.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  23. Holmes, L. G., & Himle, M. B. (2014). Brief report: Parent-child sexuality communication and autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.. Scholar
  24. Holmes, L. G., Strassberg, D. S., & Himle, M. B. (2019). Family sexuality communication for adolescent girls on the autism spectrum. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. Scholar
  25. Kellaher, D. C. (2015). Sexual behavior and autism spectrum disorders: An update and discussion. Current Psychiatry Reports. Scholar
  26. Klein, F. (1993). The bisexual option (2nd ed.). Binghamton, NY: The Haworth Press.Google Scholar
  27. Klein, F., Sepekoff, B., & Wolf, T. J. (1985). Sexual orientation: A multi-variable dynamic process. Journal of Homosexuality, 11(1–2), 35–49. Scholar
  28. Koss, M. P., & Oros, C. J. (1982). Sexual experiences survey: A research instrument investigating sexual aggression and victimization. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 50(3), 455–457. Scholar
  29. Mehzabin, P., & Stokes, M. A. (2011). Self-assessed sexuality in young adults with high-functioning autism. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 5, 614–621. Scholar
  30. Nixon, M., Thomas, S. D. M., Daffern, M., & Ogloff, J. R. P. (2017). Estimating the risk of crime and victimization in people with intellectual disability: A data-linkage study. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 52(5), 617–626. Scholar
  31. Pecora, L. A., Mesibov, G. B., & Stokes, M. A. (2016). Sexuality in high-functioning autism: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 46(11), 319–3556. Scholar
  32. Qualls, L. R., Hartmann, K., & Paulson, J. F. (2018). Broad autism phenotypic traits and the relationship to sexual orientation and sexual behavior. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 48(12), 3974–3983. Scholar
  33. Shapiro, G. K., Tatar, O., Sutton, A., Fisher, W., Naz, A., Perez, S., et al. (2017). Correlates of Tinder use and risky sexual behaviors in young adults. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 20(12), 727–734. Scholar
  34. Stokes, M. A., & Kaur, A. (2005). High-functioning autism and sexuality: A parental perspective. Autism: The International Journal of Research and Practice, 9(3), 266–289. Scholar
  35. Stokes, M. A., Newton, N., & Kaur, A. (2007). Stalking, and social and romantic functioning among adolescents and adults with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 37, 1969–1986. Scholar
  36. Sullivan, A., & Caterino, L. C. (2008). Addressing the sexuality and sex education of individuals with autism spectrum disorders. Education and Treatment of Children, 31(1), 381–394. Scholar
  37. Talbot, T. J., & Langdon, P. E. (2006). A revised sexual knowledge assessment tool for people with intellectual disabilities: Is sexual knowledge related to sexual offending behaviour? Journal of Intellectual Disability Research: JIDR, 50(Pt 7), 523–531. Scholar
  38. Tanton, C., Jones, K. G., Macdowall, W., Clifton, S., Mitchell, K. R., Datta, J., et al. (2015). Patterns and trends in sources of information about sex among young people in Britain: Evidence from three national surveys of sexual attitudes and lifestyles. British Medical Journal Open, 5(3), e007834. Scholar
  39. Twenge, J. M., Sherman, R. A., & Wells, B. E. (2016). Sexual inactivity during young adulthood is more common among U.S. millennials and iGen: Age, period, and cohort effects on having no sexual partners after age 18. Archives of Sexual Behavior.. Scholar
  40. Van Bourgondien, M. E., Reichle, N. C., & Palmer, A. (1997). Sexual behavior in adults with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 27(2), 113–125. Scholar
  41. Warren, C. (2006). Communicating about sex with parents and partners. In K. M. Galvin & P. J. Cooper (Eds.), Making connections: Readings in relational communication (4th ed., pp. 319–326). New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  42. Warren, C. (2011). Family sex communication quotient. In T. D. Fisher, C. M. Davis, W. L. Yarber, & S. L. Davis (Eds.), Handbook of sexuality related measures (3rd ed., pp. 140–142). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  43. Warren, C., & Neer, M. (1986). Family sex communication orientation. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 14(2), 86–107. Scholar
  44. Warren, C., & Warren, L. K. (2015). Family and partner communication about sex. In L. H. Turner & R. West (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of family communication (pp. 184–201). Los Angeles: SAGE. Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kathrin Hartmann
    • 1
    Email author
  • Maria R. Urbano
    • 1
  • C. Teal Raffaele
    • 1
    • 2
  • Lydia R. Qualls
    • 3
  • Takeshia V. Williams
    • 4
  • Clay Warren
    • 5
  • Nicole L. Kreiser
    • 1
  • David E. Elkins
    • 1
  • Stephen I. Deutsch
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral SciencesEastern Virginia Medical SchoolNorfolkUSA
  2. 2.Catholic University of AmericaWashingtonUSA
  3. 3.Virginia Consortium Program in Clinical PsychologyNorfolkUSA
  4. 4.Children’s Hospital of the King’s DaughtersNorfolkUSA
  5. 5.Department of Organizational Sciences and CommunicationGeorge Washington UniversityWashingtonUSA

Personalised recommendations