Autism, Sexual Behavior, and Safety at Church

By Anna Groff

It is likely that your church community is blessed with participation from autistic children and adults. These individuals offer wonderful gifts of intelligence, talents, humor, and help. We are grateful that many churches are working at creative ways to welcome and include these individuals.

When it comes to safety, people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are vulnerable for a variety of reasons. For example, many people with autism often struggle to fully understand rules of engagement and understandings of friendship. They may display socially inappropriate actions or not recognize fear or discomfort in others.

The ease and straightforward nature of online friends can be attractive to people with ASD. They may have many online friends from all around the world that they communicate with. This can be problematic, as they may be taken advantage of in these settings.

It is important to know that ASD individuals do crave authentic relationships and connections. The Netflix show Atypical features an autistic high school senior who is looking for a girlfriend in his community. This show demonstrates the very real ways that ASD individuals experience feelings of belonging, as well as hurt and confusion. Also seen in some of the main character’s behaviors, people with ASD can cross boundaries, make others uncomfortable, and be capable of abuse and misconduct.

However, according to Kim Spence and Eric Imhof’s “Differentiating Problematic Sexual Behavior Related to Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) vs Paraphilic Disorders,” individuals with autism have the same rate of sexual disorders as normally neurological developing people. This means that someone with autism is not more or less likely to be a sexual offender.

Here are three takeaways from Spence and Imhof. They are important when considering autism and safety at your church.

1. Don’t assume sexual deviance at face value from individuals with autism. Individuals may exhibit fixations on objects or body parts that professionals have deemed not to be a sexual fetish, or they may have sensory issues that can lead to partial disrobing or adjusting private parts. However, these actions, especially in church settings, can still be inappropriate and alarming to others. These incidents should be taken seriously and may require professional assistance for the individual and education for the church community.

2. At the same time, don't write off or ignore sexual behavior as being related to ASD. Don't assume that because someone is autistic they aren't capable of sexual feelings, arousal, and actions (appropriate and not appropriate). They need the same boundaries other individuals need—perhaps more concrete boundaries and guidelines. Responses such as “This person has autism, so we aren’t too worried about this sexual behavior” are problematic, said Spence.

3. Fortunately, people on the spectrum often follow rules well. Professionals are using social stories and video modeling, which can help a lot in your church setting. Video modeling is a mode of teaching that uses video recording to provide a visual model of the targeted behavior or skill. Very concrete rules like "you cannot touch someone's hair that you don't know or without consent" or "you need to stand an arm’s length from someone while talking with them," sometimes with images to illustrate the rules, often work well for people with ASD. For the general population, these kinds of explicit rules can feel unnecessary or restrictive, but for many individuals with ASD, they can be freeing and effective.

According to Debbie Miller, who is autistic, it is important to understand the contexts of these behaviors and be instructional when working with the individual. “Many of our behaviors cannot be taken literarily,” she said. “Conversations need to happen in very calm, emotionally safe places. Or sometimes redirection or distraction might be appropriate in certain situations with particularly disruptive or inappropriate behavior.”

“That’s where knowing the person comes in,” she said. “If a parishioner encounters an autistic person they haven't known before, that parishioner may not know how to judge the extent to which demeanor is agitated. But if the parishioner has known the person long enough and well enough—as happens in congregations when relationships form over time—they may be able to judge that the agitation is minimal.”

Be encouraged that there are many professionals and resources available to help you keep children, youth, and adults safe at your church—including those with ASD—while also keeping in mind special boundaries and guidelines for individuals with ASD.

Spence and Imhof presented a webinar on “Differentiating Problematic Sexual Behavior Related to Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) vs Paraphilic Disorders” on April 8, 2017.