Sexuality on the Asperger’s and Autism Spectrum
Growing up, I always heard the saying, “never talk about money, religion, politics, or sex.” The assumption is these are obviously emotionally charged topics which could lead to very uncomfortable conversations. But with whom can you talk about these subjects?
When it comes to people living on the spectrum, it can be difficult to know what topics are safe and with whom such conversations can occur. Sexuality is a big part of the human experience and is often not addressed with teens and adults living on the spectrum.
In addition, they may not know as much about sexuality as others because they may not be around people their age as often as neurotypicals. They also may not have a clear understanding of their sexuality yet.
Many professionals and parents are hesitant to discuss sexuality because they believe teens on the spectrum have enough trouble socially already. Also, teens tend to be very avoidant of the topic. But in other cases, they can actually be hyper-focused and learn about sexuality in very unhealthy ways.
Adults and teens living on the spectrum are just as interested in sex as anyone else. The difficulty is the spectrum can make sexual relationships much more complicated and confusing. Wanting intimacy and knowing how to achieve intimacy are two very different things.
In the book, Asperger’s Syndrome and Sexuality, the author, Isabelle Henault, notes the following about sexuality and kids.
- There is no positive correlation between knowledge of, and interest in, sexuality.
- Adolescence is a period marked by curiosity and exploration: this phase of development is completely healthy.
- Ignorance breeds fear (in the individual and his/her peer group).
Informationallows an individual on the spectrum to develop their own judgments and gives them the opportunity to react better to a variety of situations.
- A behavior is less likely to be excessive if it is recognized, accepted and appropriate in a given context, rather than forbidden.
- Urges and sexual desires cannot be repressed; they must be directed towards appropriate expression.
What is Intimacy?
Intimacy is being in a relationship which allows for the sharing of feelings, hopes, and dreams and is designed to build closeness between people.
Conversations about sex hopefully can happen in intimate relationships. While sex and physical touch are important in a relationship, it is not the only way to build intimacy.
Some people on the spectrum (but not all) can have trouble understanding why it is important for neurotypical people to show physical affection.
Perspective taking and really being able to listen to a partner’s needs can also be difficult as the social perspective taking is typically a weakness for those on the spectrum.
One way for people to address physical affection is to come up with a list of activities that they consider helpful in building intimacy. These can include saying “I love you,” watching YouTube together, and finding time to listen to each other. Making an actual list of things that are helpful or not helpful can be an excellent visual aid.
I have had some parents feel very frustrated that they cannot hug their child. Teens and adults can sometimes find other ways to hug. As is the case in the book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, the main character learns to press his hand against his father’s hand which is experienced by both as a sign of love. Hugs were just too painful.
The ability to communicate and take turns in discussing intimacy. For adults, being able to talk about sex ultimately requires skill. Learning to compromise is a key component to building intimacy and sexuality.
Turning to a couples therapist who works with people on the spectrum is an excellent resource I strongly encourage. And don’t wait till it’s’ too late. Begin early in your relationship in learning to talk about this and other hard topics.
Working With Kids and Teens
When talking with kids and teens about sexuality, try not to be too rigid when discussing sex terminology. By using colloquial terms, your child will be able to interact equally with their peers (This does not mean vulgar language should be used).
For teens, I encourage teaching these 5 areas:
- Masturbation is normal and healthy behavior.
- Learning the appropriate time and place in which to engage in the behavior.
- Debunking myths and their effects.
- Introducing the notion that sexual fantasies can accompany masturbation.
- Learning what kind of stimulation leads to pleasure.
Inappropriate Sexual Behaviors
Some on the spectrum may not know when it is appropriate to express sexual behavior. And it may be difficult to understand the context of a “romantic” event when with a neurotypical person.
For example, taking a walk in a park could be assumed that this is a romantic date. But to someone on the spectrum, it could be an opportunity to study nature.
The opposite could be true as well when a neurotypical person is just taking a friendly walk while someone on the spectrum may consider it romantic. Reading these situations can be difficult which is why communication is critical to sexuality and intimacy.
Individuals on the spectrum can become victims of sexual assault or abuse. In addition, they may also commit an act of abuse if they do not take into account the other person’s feelings.
That is why a full and ongoing conversation about sexuality and physical touch is so important. Understanding consent is critical. In order for consent to be given, the following criteria must be met:
1. Sexuality is experienced with another person in a private place.
2. Sexual contact with animals, children, individuals from the same family, or to obtain money is inappropriate.
3. Sexual relations can lead to pregnancy, which implies an emotional and economic commitment.
4. You can always refuse to engage in sexual contact.