What Needs To Be Said About Autism, Sex And Intimacy? A Clinical Psycology and Autism Podcast
When it comes to sex and intimacy, a lot of people approach these topics with ease, excitement and desire for deep, meaningful connections. To neurotypical people these topics are hardly given a second thought, but for autistic people, sex and intimacy can be difficult. No mental health professional talks about these topics leaving autistic people in the dark about sex and intimacy, two things they desire and want to experience. In today’s clinical psychology podcast episode, we aim to explore this topic and provide neurotypicals and autistic people alike with the information they need. If you enjoy mental health, autism and social psychology, you’ll love today’s podcast episode.
Today’s episode has been sponsored by Developmental Psychology: A Guide To Developmental And Child Psychology. Available from all major eBook retailers and you can order the paperback and hardback copies from Amazon, your local bookstore and local library, if you request it.
What Needs To Be Said About Autism, Intimacy and Sex?
I know when I started to research autism and want to explore this topic in great depth towards the end of my 6th form years (around 18 years old), I came across the weird myth within academic research that autistic people have no sense of self and they didn’t have a sexuality at all. I’m really glad academia has realised this is a myth now, but a lot of professionals still don’t realise that sexuality and intimate relationships within autistic people aren’t subjects commonly discussed.
And this is a great shame I think because there are tons of autistic people that do want to have sex, be in deep and meaningful relationships, autism can make these topics difficult.
Especially when research like Dattaro (2020) shows that many people on the autistic spectrum don’t identify with heteronormative and traditional values when it comes to sexual and intimate relationships. Yet there is a massive lack of academic research on these subjects and this academic research if it was available. Then this would be very helpful in supporting autistic people having the healthy as well as meaningful relationships that they carve.
For example, I’ve known tons of autistic people in my life and only a handful of them would never ever want a sexual relationship with anyone. Yet my old best friend, he had plenty of great, loving and caring relationships with girlfriends and he was autistic. So it is clear that some autistic people do want sexual and intimate relationships and others do not.
Um, is it me or does that sound like neurotypical people too?
So why might this lack of research exist?
Personally, I believe it centres around prejudice, stigma and discrimination against autistic people and the beliefs people have about them. I know talking to other students and professionals that they’re surprised to learn that autistic people do want relationships, love and sex. These beliefs are understandable to the extent that it is known that autistic people have difficulties with touch, emotions and empathy. All three are needed for close and sexual relationships.
In addition, sex and intimacy are still very taboo topics to talk about in western society and even more so for people with disabilities, be it physical, mental or neurological. Therefore, these beliefs about sex and intimacy impact academic research, funding and basically makes no one want to research this topic.
If you’re listening to this episode, like autism research and are in a position to do this. Then perhaps please consider doing this sort of research because it is so badly needed.
Furthermore, whilst there are some autism advocates working on this topic like the Neurodivergent Rebel as well as Wheelchair Rapunzel and now me on this podcast. It is a massive shame that the mental health services support autistic people just aren’t doing enough to educate autistic people and others about intimacy and sex. Just because a person is autistic, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be able to enjoy intimate and sexual relationships if they want to.
How Could We Educate And Support Autistic People?
There are tons of different ways we could hopefully start to change this and one of the simplest ways could be starting with ourselves. The main problem with this debate is that it is the mental health services and academics that aren’t doing enough to support autistic people in this area. The solution has to start with them, so we all need to accept that relationships are not the same for everyone.
And I think this is so easy to understand when you start thinking about it because successful relationships seriously are not the same for everyone. For example, it’s a joke in my family that my family’s weird because they sleep in the same bed but all their friends sleep in separate beds. Yet that clearly works for all of their relationships, and a lot of non-straight people have successful relationships too.
I bet if you started looking at you and your friends and the relationships involved, you would see tons of differences.
And that’s honestly part of what makes this all so fun, interesting and important to understand.
Therefore, if we explicitly connect this to autism then a lot of traditional relationships, marriages and heteronormative relationships aren’t available or even desirable to autistic people. As well as whilst Joyce et al. (2021) found most autistic people are in fact interested in a relationship, few professionals seem to be openly talking about how having a neurodivergent condition will impact the likelihood of this happening.
As a result, this does need to change because we do need professionals to help autistic people understand intimate relationships. This is even more important when we realise that a lot of autistic people enjoy talking about and questioning their sexuality and personal preferences.
Personally, this is a great thing and to really focus on the autism aspect here, I know from personal experience that being a teenager is so, so hard for questioning your sexuality AND being autistic. It’s hard, because you truly don’t know where you stand and the world is already chaotic and bad enough if you live in a world that doesn’t accept or want to help your autism. So throwing questioning sexuality into the mix is a nightmare, a beautiful nightmare, but one just the same. That’s why it’s so important for therapists to be open to talking about this.
Additionally, it’s important that people understand that what might look strange to neurotypical people is actually healthy and joyous for autistic people. As well as it is these differences that should be supported and encouraged by psychological professionals, because after all it is their job to ensure their clients live happy and fulfilled lives. And I think we can all agree being in sexual and intimate relationships (if we choose to be) certainly helps that happen.
Is There An Overlap Between Autistic People And The LGBT+ Community?
I will admit that the book that really got me interested in autism research and similar topics when I was about 17 years old was on autism and gender identity. Whilst that is different to sexuality, I still think it was important in making me realise just how many myths there are about autism within the academic literature.
As a result, there is an overlap being neurodivergent people and the LGBT+ community (I should note there is still an overlap between neurotypical people and the community). And yet, something I have a minor problem with, okay then, a massive problem with is just how little resources and books and papers are on the topic.
Personally, I would have imagined there to be tons of research because if you think about the current (or past) thinking about autism, this is a “weird” finding. I can imagine some professor somewhere who’s out of touch with the world wanting to find out why autistic people would ever want to be LGBT+ considering it is apparently against societal rules and autistic people have rigid rules in their minds. And when you consider the myths surrounding LGBT+ people then this represents another conflict with perception against autistic people. I mean the myths surrounding gay sex and how every single autistic people would hate it.
I just want to point out that considering a lot of research sets out to challenge myths, stereotypes and so-called common knowledge, I am surprised this stuff hasn’t been tested yet in academic settings.
Going back towards more fact-based stuff, a possible reason for this lack of books and resources on the topic is because many disabled as well as neurodivergent people are infantilised and desexualised to such an extreme extent that their preferences and sexuality are often ignored and devalued.
Again this comes back to the myths about autistic people not being interested in sexual relationships at all.
Autism, Clinical Psychology and Social Psychology Conclusion:
Overall, at the end of this podcast, we’ve covered a lot of interesting points that make us question the myths surrounding sex, intimacy and more about autistic people. I know, I truly know from personal experience that this is an impossible topic at times, but it needs to be spoken about. As Maslow said in his hierarchy of needs, intimacy is a fundamental human need and if professionals and therapists aren’t encouraging, helping and supporting autistic people to have these healthy relationships then we, as a profession, are failing people.
All of us have the right to relationships, to love and sex and intimacy. Just because autistic people are technically “disabled” doesn’t mean they are the exception to this rule and as future or current therapists, it is our duty to try and help autistic people form and maintain these most critical relationships.
Because what are humans without our relationships?
I really hope you enjoyed today’s clinical psychology podcast episode.
If you want to learn more, please check out:
Developmental Psychology: A Guide To Developmental And Child Psychology. Available from all major eBook retailers and you can order the paperback and hardback copies from Amazon, your local bookstore and local library, if you request it.
Have a great day.
Autism, Clinical Psychology and Social Psychology References:
Dattaro, L. (2020) Gender and sexuality in autism, explained. Spectrumnews.org
Joyal, C. C., Carpentier, J., McKinnon, S., Normand, C. L., & Poulin, M. H. (2021). Sexual knowledge, desires, and experience of adolescents and young adults with an autism spectrum disorder: an exploratory study. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 12, 685256.
Taylor, L. (2022) What Isn't Being Said About Autism, Intimacy, and Sex. Psychology Today.
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