autism and sex

Autism: Relationships, Sex & Sexuality

It’s true that autistic people face certain challenges when it comes to communicating, learning, behaving, and interacting in social interactions. 

Not just that, but there are challenges in sex and relationships. Regardless, this is not to say that an autistic person cannot have a fulfilling sex life.

Autism, Sex & Sexuality

The thing about autism is that a person’s brain works in a way that’s different from how society expects. But every person on the autism spectrum is different. Some may need (more) support than others with their daily tasks, others may need low levels of support, or even no support at all.

But because autistic individuals often face difficulties during social interactions, it’s no surprise that they may struggle when it comes to forming relationships.

So, before we discuss autism, relationships, sex, and sexuality, let’s look at a brief definition of autism.

What Is Autism?

Autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) refers to a broad range of conditions characterised by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviour, speech, and non-verbal communication. 

It’s a neurodevelopmental (brain development) condition, and could be a result of disruptions in normal brain growth very early in development. It’s also been shown that, for many people, genetics play a big role. These disruptions affect the brain’s development and regulate how brain cells communicate with each other.  

And according to 2021 statistics from the Centers for Disease Control, one in 44 children are diagnosed with autism in the U.S. It further states that one in 26 boys identify with autism and one in 116 girls identify with autism. It’s important to note that autism is diagnosed on a spectrum. In other words, every autistic person faces their own challenges.

Does Autism Affect Your Sexual Development? 

Autism doesn’t affect one’s sexual development, and does not mean that one cannot find mutually fulfilling relationships that involve intimacy and sex. It also doesn’t mean that an autistic person isn’t interested in sex. 

In fact, most people on the spectrum want to have romantic and/or sexual relationships, and they have the same range of sexual experiences and behaviours as non-autistic people.

Communication in a Relationship for Those with Autism

When one partner has autism, it can place obstacles when it comes to communication and sensory perceptions which, in turn, can influence sexual relationships. When it comes to communication, it may be hard for an autistic person to talk about their sexual wants and desires

“Without a firm understanding of how neurodevelopment differences are coming up in a partnership, couples can sometimes believe their partners do not have the best intentions for them or the relationship,” says Leslie Sickels, LCSW, a neurodiverse couples therapist.

Navigating Sex & Intimacy with an Autistic Partner

If you’re in a relationship with someone on the autistic spectrum, you can start by learning about your partner and how they experience the world. To do this, it may be helpful to:

  • Communicate with your partner without judgement
  • Let your partner know that they’re safe to discuss how they’re feeling with you and that they can ask any questions
  • Let them know that they have a safe space to talk about what they do and do not enjoy
  • Educate yourself on autism
  • Consult a medical professional to learn more about autism
  • Approach things practically
  • Take into account any motor coordination issues that your partner may have, and plan with these issues in mind
  • Talk about consent and boundaries to decrease miscommunication relating to social cues
  • Accept that everyone’s sexuality and sexual experience is different

Autism & Sexuality

Some autistic individuals may experience hyposensitivity or hypersensitivity, as well as repetitive behaviours, which can influence sexual behaviour. 

And in a 2017 study, it was shown that autistic people may experience hypersexual or paraphilic fantasies more so than non-autistic people. Paraphilic fantasies encompass recurrent, intense, sexually arousing fantasies, urges, or behaviours that are distressing or disabling.

Adversely, a 2021 study showed more similarities than differences in how autistic and non-autistic people approach romantic relationships (for example, wishing to have a partner). 

The most disturbing result of this study, however, is the fact that a significant amount of participants felt as though their knowledge about sexuality was limited. In other words, there seems to be a big educational barrier when it comes to those on the spectrum understanding sex and sexuality.

“Self-report often reflects that autistic teens and adolescents feel they have limited knowledge about sex compared to non-autistic peers. This is likely due to the lack of information provided to them,” says psychologist, Julie Landry, PsyD.

Specialised Sex Education for Those with Autism

As the 2021 study suggested, those with autism find it difficult to understand standard sexual education as it’s currently being taught in schools. This may be because schools don’t have the means or abilities to accommodate diverse students.

For that reason, a huge step forward in helping those with autism, is to re-evaluate how they receive sex education in schools. 

“It is particularly important for the sexual health of autistic adolescents and young adults since sexual knowledge is often more limited for autistic individuals, especially during the crucial period of adolescence or the first years of adulthood,” adds Landry.

She goes on to say that autistic young adults often receive less sexual guidance and support because of their barriers to learning, as well as assumptions and stigma made by educators.

There are, however, sexual health programs that have been developed to assist those with autism. One particular program, developed by Rachel Loftin and Planned Parenthood, uses a variety of different vocabulary and puts focus on visuals. They also are more explicit when it could be helpful. 

Their approach is that saying things such as: “Don’t let anyone do what you don’t want them to do,” is vague. 

They are more specific in their approach. Instead, they say things such as: “Here are some things that might come up if you have a romantic partner. You can decide if you want them to happen or not. For example, do you want to kiss someone with your mouth closed? Do you want someone to touch your neck?” 

In this way, they’re trying to set boundaries while exploring possible sensory issues or trigger zones.

How Does Autism Affect Sex?

Because everyone is different, the way in which sex is affected will vary depending on the person. 

Here are some ways that autism can affect sex:

  • Sensory sensitivity: some individuals on the spectrum may be sensitive to sounds and physical sensations of sex and it may cause discomfort. Talking beforehand could prove helpful, as well as coming up with a way for them to let you know they’re feeling uncomfortable (verbal or non-verbal). This could be a safe word or any other signal. 
  • Communication: because many autistic people may not be able to communicate as well when they’re overwhelmed, you could come up with a gesture that means “yes” or “no”.
  • Social cues: it may be difficult for an autistic person to gauge social cues, which could make sex uncomfortable for one or both partners. It could be beneficial for an autistic individual to tell their partner to be direct with them if they feel any negative feelings during intimacy.

The takeaway? Autism doesn’t affect one’s sexual development, but it is something that can be challenging to navigate. This shouldn’t hinder anyone from embracing their sexuality with a bit of patience, kindness, and communication however.