I Aspire to Be Me, LLC (I AM) is a service provider committed to dispelling the myth that adults with autism do not seek meaningful intimate relationships. It’s important for society to recognize this population can and does desire intimacy, just like everyone else. Unfortunately, they often lack the resources and training necessary to access these opportunities fully. Frequently, providers avoid any discussion of sex fearing it taboo; however, by avoiding even the mention of the word, we shield those we support from being able to fully explore sex, sexuality, and intimate relationships for themselves. This is why I AM created a pilot program called “Sex in DCity.” Funded by a grant from the Organization for Autism Research (OAR), I AM convened a cohort of 15 participants from a range of demographics; six of our participants were individuals diagnosed with autism or I/DD, five participants were direct-support staff who attended steadily, and the remainder were clinicians, facilitators, and behavioral health leaders. We were able to partner with a local DDS service provider for consistent meeting space, and several of our cohort members were individuals supported by the provider. Collectively, we proceeded through the curriculum together over the course of 20 weeks, moving through lessons and experiences that broadened all of our horizons.
I AM’s goal was to develop a comprehensive curriculum designed specifically for adults with autism and intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) so they could understand human sexuality better and have more successful sexual encounters when desired. I AM wants those on the autism spectrum to know their sexuality is valid and that there are ways for them to pursue fulfilling relationships. Sex in DCity is designed to fill the gap that exists when it comes to providing sexual education, resources, and support for adults with autism. I AM’s curriculum is tailored specifically for this population and focuses on building relationships as well as understanding the physical aspects of sexuality. It covers topics such as communication, consent, safety, body image, healthy boundaries and more, and we approach each topic in straightforward, developmentally appropriate, and honest ways. All of these are areas that adults with autism need information about so they can be empowered to make informed decisions about their personal lives.
It is vital to understand that everyone has unique needs when it comes to relationships and intimacy. That’s why the Sex in DCity program was created with adults with autism in mind. Throughout our workshop, we provided up-to-date training and information so that our participants can have meaningful, safe intimate relationships if they so desire. We are excited to be publishing our curriculum and we hope it will help to make a difference in the lives of those on the autism spectrum. The goal of our Sex in DCity program is for adults with autism to feel empowered and knowledgeable when it comes to their sexuality. Our mission is to create an inclusive environment where all forms of sexual expression are welcomed, respected, and understood. To this end we’ve been successful; 88% of participants reported feeling extremely supported and included in our workshop. With this program, we want people on the autism spectrum to know that their desires do not have to be limited by society’s misconceptions about them; instead, they can live their lives as desired without judgment or fear.
In developing the curriculum, we started from the inside out. Because, in our opinion, loving others must be rooted in self-love, our program begins with an extended unit on love of self so participants can develop their self-love authentically. We work on building positive habits around mindset and mastering negative self-talk through positive affirmations, and we use tools to help participants explore all facets of themselves including their communication styles and their visions for their futures. The first unit culminates in participants sharing vision boards featuring images and phrases that inspire hope. We then move on to units focusing on relationship-building within friendships because being able to form and maintain friendships is a vital component of forming meaningful intimate relationships. We discussed the varied roles people play in our lives, and we explored concepts like reciprocity. We were also sure to discuss safety across the array of places where folks meet each other, both in real life and online. Finally, we explored “love languages,” aspects of sexuality, and expressing physical desires to a partner and we provided education on safe sex practices.
I AM is proud of its efforts towards creating an inclusive environment where all forms of human sexual expression can be accepted, respected, and understood. We firmly believe that everyone has the right to pursue meaningful relationships. We called the course Sex in DCity because we are unafraid to say the word “sex.” Sex is not a dirty word, and we need to be able to discuss sex and sexuality openly. Service providers and other stakeholders initially questioned whether it was necessary to call our program Sex in DCity, and we responded that if we are not free to use the word “sex,” then the program will not be as effective as possible. I AM believes everyone should have access to accurate information and resources when it comes to relationships and intimacy, and 77% of participants reported they are extremely likely to use the information and skills learned in the workshop in their personal lives.
I AM’s goal for its Sex in DCity curriculum is to make a positive difference in the lives of those living with autism spectrum disorders. Through the grant from OAR, we are able to make 200 copies of our curriculum guide available for free to organizations and individuals who would like to support adults with autism and I/DD in navigating their sexuality. We have set up the website iamsexindcity.org where interested parties can reserve their free copies.
We invite you to join us in our mission of creating an inclusive environment so that all can feel free to express themselves and form meaningful relationships. We want everyone, especially adults with autism, to know that they do not have to be limited by misconceptions about them—they are capable of having fulfilling, meaningful relationships if they choose. We hope the Sex in DCity program will provide individuals with autism and I/DD with the knowledge and resources necessary for safe, meaningful intimate relationships. Together we can bring about positive change and make a difference.
Victoria Pettiquoi-Morgan is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Therapist who has been in the mental health field for over 18 years. Victoria provides therapeutic services in many capacities to families, children, adolescents, and couples. She is trained in several evidenced based treatment modalities and offers integrative mental health practices to meet the needs of the community through nontraditional approaches. Victoria’s professional journey of working with various government agencies at the State and County level engenders unique experience that supports her private practice; She is the owner and CEO of I Aspire to Be Me, LLC (I AM), a disability provider in Washington, DC, and the owner of PettiCare, LLC, a behavioral health support organization. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Matthew Ratz is an educator and is Executive Director of Passion for Learning, Inc. He served as the primary curriculum consultant for the Sex in DCity pilot program. He writes, speaks, and publishes frequently across an array of topics including mental health advocacy, autism education, college readiness, and the K-12 space. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.