The Debrief: Supporting Love and Pleasure for Friends on the Autism Spectrum

February is Jewish Disability Awareness Month. Find more information here.

Jessica Penwell Barnett is a professor of sociology at Wayne State University in Detroit. She grew up with several family members on the spectrum and recently completed a qualitative study examining sexuality and community membership in the lives of adults on the spectrum. She met Mimi while presenting a small snippet of the findings from that project at a meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality.

Jessica Penwell Barnett
Jessica Penwell Barnett

In our cultural consciousness, Autism Spectrum Disorders are most often associated with childhood. But, of course, children grow up. And folks on the autism spectrum, like most people, experience sexuality and romance in diverse ways. They can reap the same benefits from committed relationships and sensual pleasure as everyone else. However, sex, romance and companionship for folks on the spectrum can be complicated by ableism, as well as by differences in personal sensory experiences and interpersonal communication differences.

So how are we—the friends, siblings, parents, lovers, potential lovers and other allies of folks on the spectrum—to support our beloveds in navigating these complications?

Appreciate that they are on their own timeline
It’s quite common for folks on the spectrum to have their first sexual or romantic experiences in their 20s or later. This can make folks feel out of step with cultural expectations for sexuality in adolescence. When you’re supposed to “just know” certain things by the time you’re a certain age, it can be awkward if you don’t. Validate a person’s own timetable and provide non-judgmental information and guidance when asked.

Normalize sexual and gender variance
When it comes to gender and sexuality, folks on the spectrum are a creative bunch. As a group, they are more likely to be some variety of non-heterosexual (e.g., asexual, lesbian or gay, bisexual or queer) and/or gender non-conforming. Asexual and LGBTQ folks on the spectrum face the same issues and concerns as typical LGBTQA folks, such as stigma, discrimination and limited availability of appropriate sexuality information from authoritative sources, such as school-based sex ed. Help them access resources that provide respectful and helpful information, such as Scarleteen. Encourage them to find ways to network with like-minded folks, like with the Asexual Visibility and Education Network. Use these and other resources to inform yourself, too.

Address ableist assumptions
Finding a partner is often the most difficult aspect of love, companionship and sensual pleasure for folks on the spectrum—in part because we tend to make ableist assumptions about them. For example, you may assume that they are not sexual, or maybe not empathetic enough to have a relationship. Acknowledge to yourself and to them that they are worthy of love and capable of being a good partner, lover and/or companion to someone. And they don’t have to be with just anyone who will have them. They can wait for the person who values them, the person who is the “right fit.”

Be aware of your own expectations and communicate them explicitly
Folks on the spectrum might not know the “social rules” that you take for granted or presume they will or should know. For example, we might expect adept performances of sending and responding to non-verbal signals (like flirting). We might also expect “common” knowledge of the dating process (for example, when a first kiss will happen). If you are in a potential relationship or new relationship with someone on the spectrum, do not assume that they “just know.” Your lover didn’t do anything to celebrate Valentine’s Day? Why would he plan something if you didn’t tell him you wanted to celebrate!

Be on the lookout
As a friend/sibling/ally, be a safe, non-judgmental resource for interpreting the illogical and oblique nuances of courtships and relationships. Is your friend missing out on a potential relationship because she doesn’t recognize the social signals that someone’s interested? Tell her! Is he pursuing someone who is signaling disinterest? Tell him! If you are a kind and trusted person, you can find ways to be generally helpful rather than meddlesome.

Recognize that things feel different for everyone
One of the most difficult aspects of partnered sex and sensual pleasure for folks on the spectrum is sensory disregulation. Particular sensations associated with sexual activity may be unpleasant. A person may have delayed or limited access to bodily sensations (needing very strong touch to register the feeling). The cacophony of sensations that happen during sex may also become over-stimulating. Partnered sex is all about sensory input and subtle forms of interpersonal communication—two things that can be challenging or overwhelming for a lot of folks on the spectrum.

Strategize for sexual pleasure
Given challenges with sensory disregulation, normalize sensory differences and discuss strategies for obtaining mutual satisfaction. Some strategies that have worked for other folks include using barriers to reduce sensation (e.g., dental dams, gloves or blankets), planning sex in advance to facilitate an environment and body-mindset that do not interfere with pleasure, avoiding unpleasant sexual activities (including intercourse!) in favor of mutually satisfying ones, avoiding “sex” altogether in favor of other forms of sensual pleasure (e.g., massages, hugs or cuddling), and establishing non-verbal “safe words” to indicate pain or overwhelm during sex (signs or gestures can be easier than saying something out loud). If you’re a lover, initiate these conversations. If you’re a friend, you can talk through options and offer to role-play sexual negotiation techniques.

Affirm and adapt! Supporting love and sensual pleasure for each other requires the affirmation that diverse ways of doing and being are valuable and legitimate. Humans are different. We also share the desire for love, companionship and sensual pleasure. Normalize difference. Check your expectations. Communicate explicitly. Share resources. Explore new things!

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