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Developing sexual feelings

Developing sexual feelings is a normal part of growing up.


Developing sexual feelings is a normal part of growing up. Young people with intellectual disability and/or autism spectrum disorder will experience these feelings just like everybody else.

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Sometimes it can be difficult to think about your child having sexual feelings. You may have concerns about your child’s ability to:

  • recognise these feelings
  • express these feelings appropriately
  • understand if someone reciprocates their feelings
  • understand what it means to have a boyfriend or girlfriend

These concerns are normal and are shared by a lot of other parents. The good news is that with education, time and support many children with intellectual disability and/or autism spectrum disorder are able to understand their feelings of attraction and react appropriately. Some children take longer to develop romantic feelings than others. This is OK. It is still important to teach your child about these feelings so that they are prepared for when they do happen.

The first step in supporting your child to understand sexual feelings is helping them to understand what it feels like. You can talk to your child about the different things a person can feel when they are attracted to someone. For example you might explain to your child that when they have sexual feelings about someone they might:

  • think about the person a lot
  • want to be with the person a lot
  • want to touch, hug or kiss the person
  • have butterflies in their tummy
  • feel hotter in their body
  • have tingling in their private body parts. Males might get an erection, or females might get wet and slippery in their vagina. They might feel like masturbating

It is important to emphasise that it is normal to feel these things, but there are rules about what you can do when you have these feelings. Specifically:

  • touching, hugging or kissing can only happen when both people consent. Both people have to say ‘yes’ Consent in Relationships.
  • masturbation is a private behaviour and needs to be done in a private place

You may find it helpful to use a social story when explaining sexual feelings to your child. See the resource list below for some examples.

Once your child understands what it feels like to be attracted to someone it can be good to talk to them about how to tell if that person likes you back. Unfortunately, people aren’t always straightforward in expressing how they feel. It can be helpful to talk to your child about other ways they can tell if someone has feelings for you.

You can use pictures of how people might behave if they are attracted to someone. This could include people:

  • leaning in to each other during conversation
  • touching a person’s arm or shoulder
  • laughing at each other’s jokes
  • inviting a person to spend more time together

It is also important to explain to your child that just because someone is friendly doesn’t mean that they want to be their boyfriend or girlfriend. A good way to practice these skills is by watching a movie or TV show together. Ask your child if they think one character is attracted to another. Talk about why they think the characters might be attracted to each other or not. For more information go to Relationships topic page.

As unpleasant as it is, it is important to talk to your child about rejection. It is a part of life for everyone and your child needs to know that liking someone or having sexual feelings for someone doesn’t mean they will like you back. This might not feel very good but it is it is nobody’s fault. Sometimes people just don’t feel the same way. That is OK. Reassure your child that while it may hurt now, they will feel better soon.

The best way to support your child with rejection is to continue to build their confidence and self-esteem. It is easier to cope with rejection if you feel good about yourself.

For information on preparing your child for a relationship go to Relationships.

Conversation Starters

I have noticed you like to play with a particular friend a lot lately. How do they make you feel?
The person in the TV show just asked that woman on a date. This is because he likes her or has sexual feelings for her. Have you ever wanted to go on a date with someone?
You have grown up so much in the last year. Look at all the changes that your body has gone through. Part of growing up is also getting new feelings, like sexual feelings. Do you know what they are?

Strategies for you to try

Reinforce private and public

Revisit private and public with your child. Remind them that touching their private body parts is a private behaviour that can only happen in a private place. You can use the private and public sorting game mentioned here Private and Public Places to go over these concepts again.

Talk about it

Talking to your child about sexual feelings including what it might feel like and why they might have them. You can use social stories and resources like the ones listed below to help you find the right words to talk to your child.

Use movies and television

Find moments in movies and television programs where the characters have a crush or sexual feelings towards someone. Use this as an opportunity to discuss all the things that character is experiencing because of their sexual feelings and what is acceptable or unacceptable behaviour.

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Introduction to puberty for girls
Developing sexual feelings

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Managing masturbation
Developing sexual feelings

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