Autism and Sexuality

by Ramon Selove
Virginia USA

Ramon Selove Summer Headshot

I am a professor of Anatomy and Physiology at Lord Fairfax Community College near Winchester, Virginia (USA). My wife (Shellie Selove) and I run workshops on autism and/or sexuality for medical and counseling professionals, educators, parents, and people on the autism spectrum.

We have given workshops for the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT), Johns Hopkins University Medical School, and many school districts around the United States. I am diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder and have a son who is also on the autism spectrum. My wife of 30 years, Shellie Selove, is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Certified Sex Therapist who specializes in marriage counseling with people on the autism spectrum. Shellie’s counseling expertise, my physiology background, and our day to day experiences living with autism give us a unique ability to explain autism and what it is like from the inside.

Are Aspies Sexual?

Yes, we are! Have you seen the latest estimates of the frequency of Asperger’s (High Functioning Autism)? Did you know that twin studies consistently show the heritability of Autism Spectrum traits at 90% or greater? Where do you think we all come from?

And yet there is a common stereotype that Aspies are asexual. An attendee at one of my workshops on autism and sexuality, was asked by a psychiatrist colleague why she was even going to the workshop. He told her, “People with autism don’t have sex!”

Why do so many people (including those who should know better) believe in this stereotype? At the basis of most stereotypes there is a kernel of truth. What is the truth behind this one?

It is, of course, true that there are a small number of Aspies who are truly asexual. But based on my experience with people on the spectrum, I do not believe that true asexuality is any more common among Aspies then it is among neurotypicals. What IS much more common is Aspies who have given up on sexuality, deciding that it simply isn’t worth the effort and the emotional pain.

Sexual relationships can be more difficult for us because of our social anxiety, our communication differences, and our sensory sensitivities. But, when we have successful sexual relationships it just as wonderful and fulfilling as it is for anyone else. It may even have extra benefits for people on the autism spectrum.

Social Anxiety

Social anxiety can make sexual negotiations much more difficult. For Aspies, it is hard to know what to do in social interactions. Many of us rely on routines and scripts to figure out what to do and what to say. But these scripts often come off as quirky or weird to people who don’t understand us. If we are trying to seek opportunities for sex, quirky and weird can easily transform into creepy and scary. The consequences for saying or doing the wrong thing can be extreme.

All this adds up to a pretty stressful experience. And stress like this causes sympathetic arousal (the “fight or flight syndrome” or HPA axis stress response). By contrast, sexual desire and sexual excitement are parasympathetic in nature. Sexual arousal really needs a more relaxed condition. Anxiety just isn’t sexy- it is the opposite of sexy.

Aspies are often exceptionally loyal lovers. Once we establish a relationship and work out successful sexual scripts we are often reluctant to make changes. You can choose to see this as a negative- “Aspies aren’t spontaneous”. But you could also view it as a positive- “Aspies are reliable and predicable”.

I would much rather have an appointment for sex and know exactly what will be expected of me. Not everyone functions well with spontaneity and surprise.

Communication Differences

Aspies generally communicate primarily with the actual meanings of the words we say. Our meaning is not hidden in innuendo or body language.

Neurotypicals rarely say exactly what they really mean. Their actual words are often untrue while they rely on subtext and body language to convey their real meaning. They may call this “being polite” or “flirting” but to us, it just seems like lying. We often miss the body language.

For example, If I ask a love prospect if she would like to go on a date with me and she really doesn’t want to, she might say, “Oh, I would really like to but I’ve already got plans for that day. Sorry.” Was this just a polite way of saying “no”? What I hear is “yes”. I asked if she wanted to and she said she did. She just has some schedule conflict. I should probably ask again and again until I hit the right day.

Sometimes we may need a trusted friend to interpret situations like this for us. “I know what she said Ramon, but trust me, she doesn’t want to go out with you. Do not ask again.”

Or perhaps I ask her and she really does want to go out with me. She might say, “Oh no, I don’t want to go out with you” while she bats her eyes, and plays with her hair and hopes I’ll keep trying. She might think of this as flirting. But I heard “no” and I might move on to someone whose actual words seem more encouraging.

Again, a trusted friend might tell me that I should ask again. “Keep trying Ramon. I think she digs you but she wants you to work a little harder.”
Sensory Sensitivities

Aspies usually have some sensory hypersensitivies. These can really interfere with sexual relationships. These sensitivities vary tremendously from one person to another. You can’t assume that what works with one Aspie will work with another.

For me, light touch is extremely irritating. However, I really like deep pressure and find it soothing. If my wife gently brushes my arm, I almost jump out of my skin. If she didn’t know better, she might think that I was repulsed by her touch and feel insulted by it. In reality, I crave her touch, but it needs to be firm. We have had to learn how to touch each other in ways that are soothing and welcoming to each other. It takes some effort but it is worth it.

Other Aspies may have problems with smells, or sounds, or sticky secretions. There are lots of creative ways to alter sex to accommodate these sensitivities. Sometimes it helps to have a sex therapist or counselor give some individual advice based on the unique needs of one individual.
Why Sex Is So Good For Us

It may take some extra effort for an Aspie to have a good sexual experience but sex can be particularly valuable for us. Sex causes the secretion of Oxytocin, a hormone that is responsible for bonding in Humans and many other animals. Oxytocin can relieve social anxiety and stress. It has shown great promise in recent studies as a treatment for many of the symptoms of autism spectrum disorder. And many of the genes that have been found to have an impact on autism are related to oxytocin or to the oxytocin receptors.

But, you don’t have to go out and get an intranasal oxytocin inhaler to experience its benefits. A vigorous orgasm can work wonders on the symptoms of autism. And if the orgasm comes as part of a satisfying love relationship?—all the better!
You can find more about Ramon and Shellie and Selove Professional Counseling and Consulting at:
www.shellieselove.com