Evaluation of Growing Up Workshop
Children and young people with autism spectrum disorders face particular challenges in gaining a full understanding of their sexuality and in forming relationships. This issue has received relatively little attention to date but this will change as larger numbers of younger children with this diagnosis move into adolescence and adulthood. Current provision of Relationship and Sexuality Education (RSE) within schools is insufficient to meet their needs but little systematic alternative provision is available. It is widely acknowledged that parents have a critical role of play in RSE even if when it is delivered by other people outside of the home.
AutismNI were resourced to develop, implement and evaluate training workshops for parents that would support them “to improve and promote the sexual health and social well-being of young people with Autism in NI”. A two-day workshop was devised, drawing on latest research and local experience, and in consultation with a range of partners drawn from the statutory, voluntary and community sectors with the active engagement of health promotion specialists. In all 11 workshops were held in eight locations around Northern Ireland attended by over 100 parents. Parental perceptions and experiences were obtained through written questionnaires completed before the workshops, in the closing session and after three months had elapsed. In addition group interviews were conducted with workshop tutors and members of the Project Steering Group.
Prior to the workshops, many of the themes reported in the published literature were echoed in parents’ responses. But given that these were a self-selected and interested group of parents, their views may be not be representative of the wider parent population. In which case it is likely that many more parents have little knowledge about their children’s sexual awareness and they are unlikely to have discussed these issues with them.
Participants held clear expectations about the content of the workshops and how they could be put at ease when dealing with sensitive topics such as sexuality. This information proved valuable in preparing for the workshops but parental comments and reactions during the workshops also helped to fine-tune their delivery over the various presentations.
The workshops were rated very positively by the participants, especially the way they were facilitated by the trainers. Their style of tutoring and the relationship they build with the participants is probably crucial on training courses in this topic.
A low response was obtained to the post course questionnaire which may indicate that most participants had not as yet put their new learning into practice. This would be particularly true of those parents who preferred to wait until their child raised the issue rather than engage in any proactive teaching. However it is possible that many parents would require some form of ongoing support and advice in order for them to implement their learning in both informal and more formal contexts.
AutismNI are to be commended for taking a lead in this area. From the knowledge base they have accrued, they are well positioned to further advocate for creative strategies to address the sexual health and relationship needs of young people with ASD in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. A series of recommendations are proposed around the themes of training for parents; the provision of RSE to young people with ASD beyond the family, and the need to develop a coordinated, regional RSE strategy across the various sectors. This report and its recommendations might be referred to the Regional Sexual Health Promotion Network to assist with their review and refinement of the current DHSSPS Sexual Health Promotion Strategy for Northern Ireland and the future planning for its implementation with other young people with specific needs.