Autism doesn’t affect your sexual development — but by affecting your communication, sensory perceptions, and other areas, it can influence your sexual relationships.
Any relationship can encounter hurdles with sex and intimacy, and neurodiverse people may face certain challenges that make sex a sensitive topic.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental (brain development) condition. Like many neurodiversity conditions, autism exists on a spectrum based on how much it impacts daily function. In diagnosis, these are known as the levels of autism.
While autism can influence how you communicate and interact with others, it doesn’t prevent you from developing sexually, or from finding mutually fulfilling relationships that involve intimacy and sex.
Being autistic doesn’t mean a person is uninterested in sex. In fact, most people on the autism spectrum want to have romantic relationships, sexual relationships, or both. Autistic people have the same range of sexual experiences and behaviors as allistic (non-autistic) people.
How sexuality emerges in a relationship can be influenced by ASD, however.
“In neurodiverse relationships, partners’ brains are wired differently, which impacts beliefs, thoughts, and opinions,” says Leslie Sickels, LCSW, a neurodiverse couple’s therapist from New York City. “These differences in neurodevelopment can result in varying needs in intimacy and sex within a partnership.”
Communication about sex
Autism may affect how you communicate your sexual wants and desires. One partner may not realize the other is feeling unfulfilled, for example, if they don’t have clear communication about it.
“Without a firm understanding of how neurodevelopmental differences are coming up in a partnership, couples can sometimes believe their partners do not have the best intentions for them or the relationship,” explains Sickels.
Core symptoms of autism, such as hyposensitivity and hypersensitivity, as well as repetitive behaviors, may also influence sexual behaviors.
Limited or negative sexual experiences
A person’s past experiences with sex can influence their attitude toward it.
An exploratory 2021 study found there were more similarities than differences in how autistic and allistic people approach romantic relationships. However, autistic people in the study had less varied sexual experiences, and around half of the females reported negative experiences with sex.
The autistic participants also reported feeling they had limited knowledge about sexuality and found it hard to understand their sexual education.
The 2021 study authors concluded that autism may make it more challenging to understand standard sexual education as it’s currently taught in curriculums.
Classrooms may not accommodate diverse learning styles, creating significant barriers to sexual education in ASD.
“For some autistic individuals, navigating sex, sexuality and relationships may be confusing or overwhelming,” says Julie Landry, PsyD, a board certified clinical psychologist from San Antonio, Texas.
“Self-report often reflects that autistic teens and adolescents feel they have limited knowledge about sex compared to non-autistic peers. This is likely due to the lack of information provided to them.”
The link between autism, sexual orientation, and gender identity is unclear, but there appears to be a connection.
According to a 2022 systematic review and meta-analysis, people with more autistic traits reported more gender dysphoria. Gender dysphoria describes distress or discomfort someone experiences when their biological sex doesn’t align with their gender identity.
This does not mean, however, that ASD causes gender confusion. In fact, many people report the opposite — that autism can help with gender clarity.
In a 2021 study, researchers looked at autistic people’s experiences with gender dysphoria. They found study participants were highly attuned to feelings of distress caused by physically not matching their gender identities, and that autism helped them truly understand their gender identity.
This suggests the higher rates of gender dysphoria in autism may be related to higher rates of recognition, rather than actual prevalence rates.
While many educational programs and accommodations exist to assist neurodiverse students with cognitive tasks and support their learning styles, these classes usually focus on general functionality and academic skills.
Sexual education is often left at the basic standard level, and autistic youth in alternative learning programs may not participate in standard sex education classes.
However, sexual education is just as important in autistic youth, states Landry.
“It is particularly important for the sexual health of autistic adolescents and young adults since sexual knowledge is often more limited for autistic individuals, especially during the crucial period of adolescence or the first years of adulthood,” she says.
“Autistic adolescents and young adults often receive less sexual guidance, support, and education than their neurotypical peers due to barriers such as ableism, assumptions, stigmatization, and exclusion.”
Autism doesn’t have to stop you from enjoying sexual intimacy or having positive sexual experiences.
Learning about your partner
Sickels recommends learning about your partner — neurodiverse or neurotypical. This can mean:
- open communication
- a partnership with medical experts
“Once a couple is able to see how the differences in brain wiring are impacting their relationship, they can begin to re-establish trust,” she says.
Approach things practically
Some hurdles in autism and sex may be related to physical ability.
Landry recommends discussing, as a couple, practical workarounds. “Consider any issues with motor coordination and whether any deliberate planning with these issues in mind would be helpful,” she says.
Not everyone communicates in the same way. When you’re in a neurodiverse relationship, social cues may appear as one thing, but mean another.
Understanding your partner’s cues of consent can be important to maintaining trust and intimacy.
“Communicate explicitly with your partner to decrease miscommunication related to social cues; this is likely easier to do when it’s not in the heat of the moment,” suggests Landry.
The golden rules of sex — for everyone
Whether you’re autistic or not, Landry says everyone can benefit from the following guidelines:
- know and accept that your sexuality is not the same as everyone else’s
- embrace your desires and preferences
- spend time getting to know your body and what you enjoy
- understand consent
- communicate with your partner before, during, and after sexual activity
Autism doesn’t impact sexual development or the ability to experience sex. While there appears to be a link between autism and gender dysphoria, the exact nature of this relationship is unclear.
Open communication, education, and practical problem-solving can help your neurodiverse relationship thrive.