On Sex and Relationships for Autistic Folks

two people holding hands

“One of the greatest dangers that face an autistic adult is not having sufficient information to deal with adult issues,” writes autistic romance writer Dahlia Donovan on her blog. One of the big problems, according to Dahlia, is that the information that’s out there isn’t designed for autistic folks

The Problem: Lack of Resources Specifically for Autistic Folks

“Sex education is almost entirely written by non-autistics,” Dahlia explained.  “In my experience, it does not take into account how our minds work. We tend to be literal thinkers. We don’t ‘read between the lines.’ We also aren’t good at reading body language, other people’s expression, and tone of voice. At least, I’m not good at it. That all, to me, plays into sex education.

“I think one of the dangers, in particular, are autistics need a more detailed view on gender, sexuality, consent, etc. We’re at a greater risk of being taken advantage of because the education isn’t there. Non-autistics take for granted a lot of things that we don’t necessarily understand.”

This article is just the tip of the iceberg about these subjects. I interviewed Dahlia, as well as Dr. Jenny Palmiotto, a licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of loveandautism.com, about specific issues related to sex, dating, and relationships for autistic folks.

“I think one of the dangers, in particular, are autistics need a more detailed view on gender, sexuality, consent, etc. We’re at a greater risk of being taken advantage of because the education isn’t there. Non-autistics take for granted a lot of things that we don’t necessarily understand.” Dahlia Donovan

In this discussion, it’s important to remember that everyone’s experience varies, as does what you need. For instance, Dahlia’s experiences may resonate for some and not others. Take what’s helpful and disregard the rest.

When the World Tells You to Hide Who You Are

It’s common for folks trying to “help” austistic folks to recommend being a little more neurotypical. This can include friends and family members and even well-intentioned experts. As a result, you might’ve learned to hide things that make you different, even with loved ones.

Jenny explained it becomes common in dating relationships for an autistic person to try and change or hide who they are. “Sometimes they’ll even people-please to keep a partner satisfied or appear as a formidable mate,” Jenny explained. “Those things can be damaging in a relationship. In my opinion, authenticity is core to a healthy partnership. If you’re not being your authentic self, there’s no way for you to get to vulnerability and trust in a relationship, and inevitably that’s not going to feel good for long.”

So how do you learn to be authentic when the world has told you to hide who you are?

Start With Self-Love

“If you hate yourself, then you’re not going to get to the point where you’re in a position to give your real self to somebody else,” Jenny said. “I think that having a healthy relationship with yourself is critical to showing up in a partnership and not creating a narrative related to rejection. In that, you have to have a decent relationship with your autistic self as well.”

According to Jenny, working on a deeper self-love includes figuring out what ideals or identities you’re holding onto that don’t serve you well. For instance, believing you need to be highly sexual, or more extroverted, or more feminine or masculine in order to find love and affection.

What ideals are you holding onto that are unhealthy? How can you work to let them go and love yourself as you are?

But this doesn’t mean you have to have everything figured out.

It’s Okay to Not Understand Everything About Yourself

Dahlia hasn’t completely figured out her own sexual or gender identity: “There’s this slight detachment I have towards sexuality and gender that always leaves me baffled by it. I was born a woman, and I identify as one, but mostly I’m just like — what even is gender … of everything I’ve learned over the last ten years, it’s taken until I hit 40 this year for me to say I’m on the asexual spectrum. And even then, I’m not sure I’ll ever be completely comfortable with the idea of a sexual identity in general for myself,” Dahlia explained. “I’ve spoken to many fellow autistics who experience the same confusion.”

If you feel like there are things about sex, sexuality, gender, or relationships that you just don’t get, you’re not alone. It might be helpful to remember that nobody has everything figured out regardless of whether they’re autistic. If someone makes you feel bad for that which you don’t know or understand, that’s their problem (and there’s probably a lot of things they won’t admit they don’t understand, either).

But, as we said earlier, autistic folks have the added disadvantage of sex education not being designed in a way that easily speaks to them. Therefore it becomes more difficult to figure things out.

So how can you educate yourself? Dahlia recommends asking questions in autistic communities. “There’s a lovely online community of adult autistics who are generally really open to helping other autistics. Autistic bloggers and organizations like Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN).

The Importance of Finding Your Tribe

“When we’re with our people, whoever people are, then we are the best versions of ourselves,” Jenny said. “We’re not doing the kind of pretending or faking or fitting in. We’re just being whoever we are. It can feel remarkable when it happens, and when it doesn’t happen, it can feel like physical pain.”

It can be much harder to find your tribe with speech and mobility issues, but there are online communities that can be helpful. For instance, Twitter and Tumblr can be a great ways to find community.

Hashtags to follow:

#actuallyautistic

#disabledpeoplearehot

Tumblr Accounts to Check Out:

Austistic-flirting.tumblr.com

Queerautisticspace.tumblr.com

(Have others you think we should add to this list? Email justthetip@gmail.com or holler at thejerabrown on Twitter.)

You Get to Choose What You Disclose and To Whom

Even if you’re working on accepting yourself and being authentic with loved ones, this doesn’t mean you have to be open and vulnerable with everyone. Being out and vocal about being autistic can be more vulnerable for some folks than others. Or exposing different parts of yourself that feel unique or different.

“Not everybody deserves your story and not everybody deserves you. We can’t trust everybody and we get to choose who hears our story and who we show our vulnerable self to” Jenny said.

She advises folks to consider why they want to share certain information: “If you’re sharing so that somebody can leave you fast, you may want to consider the share. If you’re holding this thing inside and not sharing with somebody that you feel like you trust, are you afraid of rejection? Are you afraid of this person hearing this information and choosing to move on from you or deciding that you’re not worthy by them? Again, those are things that, if you’re doing it for other people, you might want to dig in and consider what’s really best for you.”

“Not everybody deserves your story and not everybody deserves you. We can’t trust everybody and we get to choose who hears our story and who we show our vulnerable self to.” Dr. Jenny Palmiotto

This can be trial and error, but it’s also helpful to keep in mind that everyone is different. Not everyone is going to react in the same way to information or intimacy. 

There’s Not One Right Way To Approach Sex

Autism may affect someone’s relationship to touch and sensory experiences in many ways. For instance, Dahlia struggles with sensory overload which can make sex overwhelming. Some people might want very little touch or a lot of touch or specific kinds of touching. These things may go against societal scripts of sex and relationships: what you think is expected in a relationship.

It’s completely okay if your desires and what feels comfortable to you does not match a societal norm. The norms aren’t healthy for anyone.

Having honest conversations with your partner or potential partner about how you experience the senses, what you enjoy and don’t enjoy can be helpful. So can establishing boundaries. These boundaries can be fluid and change throughout your relationship.

In case you need to hear this:

  • It’s okay to stop something if you’re overwhelmed.
  • It’s okay to ask for more of something.
  • It’s okay if there are things you never want to do.
  • It’s okay if things you enjoy are unique or outside what you believe is normal.

If someone makes you feel bad for what you do or don’t like or for establishing your boundaries, they might not be a safe person for you. But patient partners are out there. 

Dahlia explained, “I‘ve been quite blessed to be married to a non-autistic man who is understanding, patient, and willing to compromise.” 

Wait for the folks who are willing to explore slowly and creatively and encourage your boundaries.

For Folks who are Non-Speaking or Living in Institutions

“Sex isn’t just for people that have college degrees or can move their bodies down the street at will or for people that can language their thoughts,” Jenny explained.

You’re 100% allowed to be a sexual being. Your needs might look different than what is seen as normal, and that’s ok. 

For instance, Jenny explained, “Those that have a communication partner that are using a letter board or RPM, their communication partner is going to be there with them, and that is part of their experiences through life that it’s perfectly acceptable. We need to reject and rebuild societal norms. And if this is a life goal for somebody to have sexual partners or date or get married, then those of us that are helping this person walk in their journey need to support that.”

Photo by Alvin Mahmudov on Unsplash

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Jera Brown writes about being a queer kinky polyamorous Christian on their blog scarletchurch.com. Their sex and relationship advice column, Just the Tip, is hosted by Rebellious Magazine. Follow them on Twitter or Instagram @thejerabrown.