Autism awareness has been on the rise in the past couple of years. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by deficits in social communication and interaction and engaging in repetitive behaviors. The range of symptoms varies from mild to severe, with some people requiring daily assistance while others can live successful lives.
Autism does not require a cure; it means a person’s brain works differently than how society expects it to work.
Previous studies have found that people with autism seek out sexual relationships and show an entire range of sexual behaviors. However, due to the core symptoms of ASD, combined with limited sexual experience and knowledge, autistic people can develop challenging sexual behaviors, such as hypersexuality, paraphilic behaviors, and even sexual offending.
So, how does autism impact sexual life? Discover the answer in this article.
Does Autism Affect Sexual Behaviors?
Any relationship can struggle with sex and intimacy, yet autistic people face challenges that make sexuality a sensitive subject. However, these issues don’t stop autistic people from developing sexually or finding love, intimacy, and sex in a meaningful relationship.
Many autistic people want to have romantic relationships. However, how sexuality manifests in a relationship can be influenced by ASD. People with autism can have various needs within a sexual relationship. A study also noted that autistic teenagers and young adults have less knowledge about sex and intimacy. This might lead them to engage in inappropriate sexual behaviors.
ASD affects how people communicate their sexual wants and desires. Without clear communication, the partner might not realize the other’s wishes are unfulfilled.
When entering a relationship, communication is a vital part of its development. People benefit from discussing their needs with their partners before engaging in sexual activity. Some adults with autism might get overwhelmed during sex, which can lead to feelings of anxiety and discomfort.
These tips might help:
- Decide on a “yes, no, or maybe” list before engaging in sexual behavior
- Decide on a safe word that you can use when you need to “STOP”
- Keep a notepad by your side to point to if needed
Core symptoms of autism spectrum disorder, such as hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity, can influence sexual behaviors. A 2017 study has reported that autistic people experience hypersexual and paraphilic fantasies more frequently—and it’s more common in males with ASD than neurotypical individuals.
People with ASD might experience a sensitivity to sensory stimuli, especially touch, which can lead to over- or under- reaction to sexual stimulation. In turn, these sensations can cause the autistic person to feel uncomfortable.
Sex can be overwhelming, so it’s essential to communicate and share feelings with your partner. Also, you are never required to do anything you are not comfortable with. Always discuss your needs with your partner.
Limited or Negative Sexual Experiences
We are all molded by our sexual experiences, and our past experiences can influence our attitude toward it. A 2021 study found that there are more similarities than differences in how autistic people and neurotypical people approach relationships. However, people with autism spectrum disorder had less varied sexual experiences—and half of the females reported having negative experiences with sex.
Autism makes it more challenging to understand standard sexual education currently taught in curriculums. Many classrooms do not accommodate diverse learning styles, which, in turn, creates significant educational barriers. Most academic programs that accommodate neurodiverse students focus on general functionality and educational skills.
Sexual education is often done at a basic standard level, leaving young autistic individuals confused and overwhelmed regarding sex. However, sexual knowledge is a crucial part of adolescence.
Here are some factors that influence this lack of sexual knowledge:
- Insufficient sexual education
- Difficulties with social interaction
- Exclusion from social situations
- Ableism from the assumption that people do not have sexual feelings
Does Autism Affect Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation?
There appears to be a connection between autism, sexual orientation, and gender identity, despite being unclear. However, there is no denying that gender identity and sexual orientation are more varied in autistic people than in the general population. In addition, people with ASD reported more gender dysphoria, a distress or discomfort someone experiences when their biological sex doesn’t align with their gender identity.
What Is Gender Identity?
Gender identity is often described as a person’s internal sense of their own gender. Some people identify with the sex assigned at birth (cisgender), and those who do not use terms such as gender fluid, nonbinary, and transgender.
How Common Is Gender Diversity Among People with Autism Spectrum Disorder?
Many studies examined the prevalence of gender diversity among people with autism. One found that about 15% of autistic adults in the Netherlands identify as nonbinary or trans, more prevalent in people assigned female at birth than those assigned male.
In the USA, 6.5% of autistic teenagers said they want to be the gender opposite of what they’ve been assigned at birth. Autism appears to be more prevalent among gender-diverse people than the general population. A 2018 Australian survey of transgender teenagers found that 22.5% have been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.
Sexual orientation is also more diverse in people with autism than in neurotypical people. Only 30% of people with ASD are heterosexual, compared to 70% of neurotypical participants.
Why Does This Happen?
Autism doesn’t cause gender confusion. It’s the opposite: autism helps with gender clarity. A 2021 study found that the participants felt gender dysphoria and that autism helped them understand their sexual identity.
This might happen because autistic people are less influenced by social norms and present themselves more authentically. Individuals with autism may come to conclusions quicker than neurotypical people.
Tips for Navigating a Relationship
Autism spectrum disorder doesn’t need to stop you from enjoying sexual intimacy. Here are some tips to help you have positive sexual experiences.
- Learn about your partner: This can mean engaging in self-education, open communication, or a partnership with medical experts. A couple needs to know how the difference in the brain can affect a relationship.
- Take a practical approach: Challenges related to physical ability might arise. Consider the issues and discuss, as a couple, workarounds.
- Understand consent: Not every couple communicates in the same way. While social cues might appear as one thing, they might mean another. Understanding your partner’s cues is important to maintain trust and decrease miscommunication.
Expressing Your Sexuality
Remember: sexual feelings are natural and nothing you should be ashamed of. On the other hand, it’s also natural for a person not to have sexual feelings. Don’t feel shame for your sexuality.
Furthermore, expressing sexuality is healthy and helps reduce stress and anxiety.
Continue Reading: Autism and Anxiety.
Here are some golden rules to remember:
- Embrace your desires and preferences
- Understand consent!
- Always communicate with your partner before, during, and after
- Know your body and what you enjoy
- Accept that your sexuality is not the same as everyone else’s
Public Vs. Private
Autistic people should know the difference between what is acceptable in public and what is not. It also helps keep everyone safe. For example, holding hands in public is okay, but sexual activities should be kept private.
How to Have Healthy Sexual Relationships
Every relationship has its ups and downs and challenges you need to overcome together. Romantic relationships involve people having a consensual and reciprocal emotional and sexual connection. Depending on the type of relationship, a person’s behavior can be appropriate or inappropriate.
A healthy relationship should have the following characteristics:
- Being emotionally and physically respectful
- Being accepting of each other
When dating, it’s important to remember that:
- It’s fine not to have a crush on someone. Having a crush on someone is natural, and it’s possible to have a crush on more than one person.
- While flirting can be fun, respecting other people’s boundaries is vital.
- Being in a relationship is challenging, but you should always communicate and solve the issues that arise.
- Although it’s difficult, ending relationships is necessary.
The internet can be a good or bad place, even when it comes to developing relationships. It’s crucial to remain safe when engaging in online dating.
Follow these rules:
- Don’t share or post anything you do not want to
- Take precautions when deciding to follow an online meeting with a real-life meeting
- Never engage in sexually explicit materials that include minors
- Don’t share personal details, such as financial information, with anyone on the internet.
Teenagers and Sexuality
For teenagers, sexuality is more than sex. It’s also about how they feel around their developing body, understanding feelings of intimacy and attraction to others, and developing meaningful and respectful relationships.
Autistic adolescents develop the same way as other teenagers, but they might need extra help to build social skills. In addition, your teenager might be more or less interested in sex and sexuality.
Understanding Sexual Feelings
Many autistic adolescents find it hard to understand sexual feelings, so it’s up to you to help them understand. Break sexual feelings into thoughts, body sensations, and behavior. You can use social stories and visual support to talk to your child about these feelings and avoid inappropriate or risky behaviors.
- Practice social interactions using role-play
- Set some clear rules when inviting someone on a date
- Set some boundaries for appropriate behaviors