The Healthy Relationships, Sexuality and Autism program (HRSA) is expanding across Atlantic Canada by this fall.
The program, which focuses on bridging gaps in sexuality education, has already run three successful cohorts.
"It's a comprehensive, sex-positive, sexuality education for people with autism ages 19 and over," says Yevonne Le Lacheur, program director at Autism Nova Scotia.
The organization began developing HRSA in 2017 after receiving the Sexual Violence Prevention and Innovation grant from the Nova Scotia Department of Community Services.
"The curriculum took about a year to write the first draft of it, and then we've been doing revisions since then," Le Lacheur says.
Now, the HRSA curriculum is over 500 pages long, and covers everything from consent to masturbation to romantic relationships.
"It's not just looking at STIs and pregnancy, which is the general sex education that we're commonly seeing," says Le Lacheur. "It's talking about things like gender identity, gender expression, personal values, social skills."
HRSA is designed as a 12 week course, meeting once a week for two hours. The groups are small, just four to eight people, giving a chance for participants to get to know each other and feel comfortable opening up.
"When you're working with people who might not have had the opportunity to really discuss sexuality, you want to make sure you're able to support that in a smaller group and really build a strong sense of community," explains Le Lacheur.
The program is designed to cover learning gaps that people with autism experience when they are transitioning from teenagers to the adult phase of their lives, Le Lecheur explains.
"I've worked with a lot of people saying I've never had a partner, I've never been sexually involved, and this is this really key, important piece of my life that I'm not sure how to navigate," she says.
An advisory group comprised of three people on the autism spectrum also helped develop the program since its early stages.
"They were talking about things in their lived experiences," recalls Le Lacheur. "In junior high or high school, they had experiences where they were told that 'Oh, you don't need to take sexuality education, this isn't for you.' In many cases they weren't even given the opportunity to attend that class."
Although they may never have had have the opportunity to learn sexuality education with their peers before, Le Lacheur says the participants were eager to learn in ways that were adapted for them.
Autism NS worked closely with a graphic designer to ensure the curriculum had plenty of visual elements.
"Some people with autism are really visual learners, and I wanted to make sure that the content had a really strong visual component. A wide variety of representation is included in the illustrations and in any of the case study activities, which is really important to us, because if you look in sexuality education textbooks it's usually white heteronormative representation," says Le Lacheur.
The HRSA program has now run in Halifax twice, and once in Truro. A third group will begin in Halifax this July.
Autism Nova Scotia received a second round of the grant from the Department of Community Services this past year, as well as a grant from the Public Health Agency of Canada.
"As more people started hearing about HRSA and the program we were starting to get more of a demand for it," says Le Lacheur.
Through a new 'train the trainer' program, Autism NS will soon roll out HRSA in several different communities across all four Atlantic provinces.
"People will be coming here into Halifax for five days, and then they'll be going back to their communities and starting the early stages of getting their cohorts ready," Le Lacheur says.
With the grant money, they are also working to adapt the curriculum into French. Eventually, they also hope to create a version of the program for those younger than 19, and a version for people with autism who require a higher level of support.
"If a person doesn't have access to sexuality education, they're missing those major life skills, which are important for any age," Le Lacheur says. "It's content that is for everyone, just adapted in a way that supports people with autism as learners."