2SLGBTQ+ Sexuality and Gender Support Group for Autistic Individuals

The Cause

Through the mental health across the autism spectrum counselling program at Society for Treatment of Autism (STA), autistic adolescents and adults have the opportunity to receive mental health services from a multidisciplinary team in order to address the many issues that autistic individuals face that impact their mental well being. One such issue that continues to arise among our counselling participants is a greater need for 2SLGBTQ+ supports that specifically relate to autism. Issues such as sexual health, consent, gender dysphoria, sexuality, healthy relationships, sensory preferences within sex, and more continue to emerge in our work with this population. Further, many of our adult and adolescent participants have reported feeling social isolation and a lack of community, which has negatively impacted their mental health and their ability to find and maintain healthy relationships. To this end, we aim to provide a safe space where peers can learn from professionals with lived experience, as well as from each other about issues relating to 2SLGBTQ+ identity. Over the past few years, STA has offered a psychoeducational Women’s Support Group that has received positive feedback from participants. However, we have also received feedback that this group does not include the experiences of non-binary and trans folks who would also benefit from a similar support group. For these reasons we are seeking funding in the hopes of creating a 2SLGBTQ+ Sexuality and Gender Support Group to serve the autistic 2SLGBTQ+ community. Specifically, this group will include three elements to serve this marginalized population. First, a psychoeducational component to educate participants on autism, gender identity, and sexuality, as well as the intersection of these three aspects of identity. Second, an expressive arts component to help participants process and communicate their experiences through creative outlets, such as through mask creation, movement, puppetry, role play, and joint art works. Finally, it will include a support group element where participants can share their experiences, offer and receive support, and build connections and community.

Who Will it Benefit?

This funding will support the development of two support groups to benefit 2SLGBTQ+ autistic individuals who are either 13-17 or 18+ respectively. While research on this topic is so far limited, there is evidence to suggest that gender dysphoria is 10 times higher in children and adolescents with autism than in the general population (de Vries et al., 2010). As well, a recent study has found that up to 55% of autistic individuals interviewed reported being attracted to their same gender or more than one gender, and that this may be an underestimation (Kellaher, 2015). While autistic individuals have a similar level of romantic interest as their neurotypical peers, autistic individuals report having lower satisfaction with romantic connections and less success within their relationships (Hancock, Stokes and Mesibov, 2019). Research suggests that one contributing factor may be that autistic individuals have fewer opportunities for social engagement, and that social engagement provides positive opportunities to learn from peers as well as to practice social interactions (Hancock, Stokes and Mesibov, 2019). As it currently stands, studies have found that autistic individuals reported receiving significantly less sexual health education and had less knowledge on sexually transmitted diseases, reproduction, and contraception as similarly aged peers, and that they were more likely to receive education from television or porn rather than parents, teachers or peers (Kellaher, 2015). One study has found that using dramatic arts to teach sexual health helped participants learn about themselves, develop a greater self confidence, and improve their interpersonal skills, and that these programs helped them “accept every part of themselves” (Grewe et al., 2015). To this end, our 2SLGBTQ+ support group will serve this population by providing sexual health education, as well as psychoeducation on issues relating to autism, sexuality and gender identity. It will do so by employing methods shown to provide social engagement, positive practice with relationship skills, creative expression of identity, and peer support and learning.