Sex can be confusing for everyone at times, let’s face it.
You try a new move only for your partner to shriek in horror, or they ask you to talk dirty to them and suddenly you can’t think of anything to say.
But for those of us who are on the autistic spectrum, things are often even more complicated.
Although every autistic person is different – there’s good reason for it being described as a ‘spectrum’ – there are some things that seem to be common to many of us.
Often, we struggle to communicate – we may have learned how to look as though we understand you, but we’re probably interpreting your thoughts and motives completely differently to how you intended.
And we might have sensory issues – perhaps we can’t cope with loud noise or intense emotion, or maybe we struggle to concentrate at all and need something to focus on in order to stay in the moment.
In addition, many of us – myself most definitely included – seem to be missing the ‘verbal filter’ that other people have, which means we often say or do things that seem completely logical to us, but confusing and potentially shocking to those whose brains are neurotypical.
The fact that I’m so straightforward about sex and sexuality is a positive in that it means I can write articles like this one – or even this – without being remotely self-conscious.
Because why should I be? Sex in all its guises is normal and natural.
The negative side comes in when other people don’t understand my motives. I’ll talk about the most delicate of sexual topics at any time in any place, because I find it interesting.
Neurotypical people all too often mistakenly assume that those of us who are autistic are also sexless. This attitude is something that writer Katherine May knows only too well.
‘My last book, The 52 Seductions, was a memoir about sex in a long term relationship that I wrote pre-diagnosis.
‘I now read it again and it’s so clear to me that it was really about me working out how to cope with sex as an autistic person.
‘A common response when I told people I was autistic was ‘but you wrote a whole book about sex!’ The assumption is that we’re altogether sexless.’
We’re mostly anything but – but that assumption, alongside a common difficulty in communicating openly, can have drastic consequences.
Andrew: ‘I almost had an unnecessary circumcision.
‘I’d never learnt to retract my foreskin as I grew up, so it became tight and painful.
‘My sexual partner told me that I should consider circumcision, but when I saw a specialist, I was told it was in fact caused by poor hygiene.
‘This was never ever discussed by my family growing up. Sex is kind of a taboo topic and I learnt a lot of unhealthy tips from porn.
‘Embarrassment and anxiety have played a big part in it, I suppose – but also I think there is a lack of autism understanding in my family.
‘I was diagnosed as ‘special needs’ growing up. I think that led some people to automatically desexualise me as I was immature for my age.
‘Desexualisation is a problem for disabled people – we all crave connections and social interaction and if we don’t have a connection with people, it takes forms in other things like addiction.
‘I went with gambling, but for others it might be drink, drugs or porn.’
If you have communication difficulties and grow up in a family who don’t like to talk about this stuff, what hope have you got of figuring it out for yourself?
It can be hard enough even when you have a certain level of self awareness but don’t realise that you’re ‘fitting in’ with society because that’s what you think is expected, rather than what you actually want.
Amalena Caldwell is an autistic writer who blogs as Some Girl With A Braid:
‘I’m pretty sex-positive and much more open to talking about things than most people are – which I have to remember to rein in sometimes so I don’t make others uncomfortable.
‘I think being autistic means that I don’t see the strict lines so much that the rest of society puts in place.
‘There’s a lot of ‘society says this is how you perform sex and relationships if you’re a girl’ and I just sometimes throw that out the window and go with what feels good.
‘For example, realising I was bisexual was strange.
‘I’d always liked guys and had crushes on them – as society’s narrative says I should – but I only ever had one real crush on a girl before I figured myself out.
‘I brushed it aside and didn’t think about it for years, deciding to just focus on boys because it was a lot easier.
‘Then someone pointed out to me that they saw me looking at girls and I realised I didn’t have to just like guys or girls like the boxes society likes people to fit into.
‘I could like whoever was attractive. Guys, girls, trans, and anyone else who happened to catch my eye.
‘I guess I just don’t understand society very well, and that gives me freedom because I realised my hang-ups didn’t make any logical sense.
‘While being autistic makes it difficult for me to find someone to have sex with, I think it ultimately gives me more enjoyment and freedom with the sex I do have.’
Focusing can be difficult when you’re autistic. Whatever situation I’m in – romantic, sexual, or even just work – I struggle to stay focused on the task in hand(!).
Lila certainly has similar issues.
‘I tend to space out during sex. I run out of things to say to my partner and feel what amounts to nothing – unless something is making me focus on my body I don’t really feel pleasure.
‘I need my partner to talk to me or provide a lot of physical stimulation or skin-to-skin contact. If I get intoxicated I get less distracted.
‘Basically I find I need a lot of mental stimulation or I will zone out and end up thinking about other things and being bored.’
Some people find that an autism diagnosis brings with it an explanation as to why they’ve been feeling the way they do.
Jo: ‘I was diagnosed relatively late in life. I’ve been married for 34 years but never really enjoyed sex.
‘Since my diagnosis, I discussed it properly with my husband and we are now happily celibate.’
And that’s the point – everyone has different ways of dealing with things. There’s no law saying that everyone should have a full throttle sex life – so long as all parties involved are happy, that’s all that matters.
Some names have been changed and quotes edited for clarity. If you’re affected by the issues discussed here and would like to discuss it with likeminded others, join in at the Scope Community Forum.