Dating, romance and sex is something that’s rarely talked about in the context of autism. It seems to be a common belief that people on the autism spectrum have no sex drive and no interest in maintaining romantic relationships. This myth is perpetuated by popular tv shows like the Big Bang Theory, and by the false stereotype that people with autism are happier alone and detest all forms of physical contact.
I was recently at a training session, where a “sexual” incident taking place at a swimming pool was described in detail. An autistic boy had gone up to a girl and started to touch her. The staff,( terrified this behaviour sexual and completely at a loss for how to explain the appropriate boundaries) brought in a professional. What was thought to be sexual behaviour turned out to be a sensory issue. The boy was fascinated by the swirling colours on the girl’s swimsuit, and left her alone as soon as he was given some similar material to feel. I call this The Swimming Pool Scenario. The specialist who explained The Swimming Pool Scenario to a group of avid students concluded by stating ‘we must be wary of putting neurotypical motives on autistic people.’ We must also be wary of making broad, sweeping statements when it comes to the difference between autistic people and a neurotypicals. Sex is not, nor has it ever been, a purely neurotypical motive.
With the exception of the one percent of the population that identifies as asexual, sexual attraction motivates the behaviour of everyone at one time or another. Some people may choose to avoid sex because of their religion, culture fear of intimacy. But we all have the potential for arousal regardless of whether or not we fit into the narrow social stereotype of what makes a desirable partner. People with Downs Syndrome get horny, people with learning difficulties get horny, and yes, even people on the Autism Spectrum get horny. While The Swimming Pool Scenario is a useful gateway for understanding sensory processing and how the behaviour of autistic people is often misinterpreted, the dismissal of sex as a neurotypical motive is unfair and untrue. If you’ve learned about autism from a purely scientific point of view, it’s easy to think of autistics as a separate species with separate motives. Unusual connections in the neural pathways do mean we see and hear the world in a different way to neurotypicals. Our minds are totally unique. But we’re also just like you. Most of us eat, sleep, breathe, shit, desire intimacy, forge relationships and fall in and out of love in the same way a neurotypical would.
So where has this misconception that autistics have no desire for sexual or intimate relationships come from? The lack of accurate representation of autism in the media is a huge culprit. When most people think autism they think Rain Man, or The Big Bang Theory, both of which depict socially awkward geniuses who adhere to strict routines and have virtually no desire for friendship or sex. Whilst The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper is not described as autistic by the writers, the characters social awkwardness has inadvertently made him a poster boy for autism (or at least, for autism stereotypes). Indeed, the actor who plays Sheldon has suggested that in the real world, his character would probably be diagnosed with autism. One of the shows longest running jokes is that Sheldon has virtually no interest in sex or intimacy, and ignores or misunderstands the advances made by his long term girlfriend Amy.
A second reason for this misconception is that lots of people on the autism spectrum have trouble finding a sexual partner, leading neurotypicals to assume that since we’re single, we have no interest in sex or intimacy. It’s not like this for everyone. I’ve met plenty of people with a diagnosis of autism or Asperger’s Syndrome that have been sexually active from a young age, and seem to have no trouble at all finding partners. But I’ve also met plenty of autistic people who’ve really struggled with dating and intimacy (not the sex itself, but rather the complex social rituals leading up to it).
Try to think about the last time you were “on the pull” or asked someone out on a date. If you’re neurotypical, this process was probably simpler for you than for someone with autism. You understood the basic social ritual (taking her/him out for a meal, offering her/him a drink, pretending to listen to her/his life story etc) and you could tell from the way s/he looked at you that s/he was up for it. Now try to think about what that process would be like if you had a social awareness and communications disability. How would you know where to take your date, how long to hold her/his gaze for, when to hold her/his hand, when to pay for drinks and when to let her/him reach for the cheque? Try to think about what it would be like if you looked into your date’s face and their expression was completely unfathomable. How would you know if s/he wanted intimacy, or was just giving you eye contact because you were sat across the table from her/him? The chances are you’d probably leave the bar/restaurant alone, with your date feeling like you came across as a bit of a “weirdo”. Alternatively, s/he may assume you’re not interested in them because they expressed their desire for sex in a way they felt was obvious and you didn’t pick up on it. Dating is often like this when you’re on the autism spectrum.
Being successful at both romance and seduction means you need to have good social skills, and be able to pick up on your partner’s moods and emotions intrinsically. These are two areas autistic people really struggle with, because autism is a social awareness and communications disability. While body language and facial expression might be easy for a neurotypical to interpret, for us, they’re a foreign language of which we only know a few words. If neurotypicals could just express what they want directly (ie: saying ‘will you kiss me now?’) instead of waiting for us to guess, things would become so much easier for both parties.
Some autistics find dating so difficult they end up claiming to have lost all interest in sex and go through periods of self-imposed celibacy. I went through a brief period of this myself during my teenage years. It wasn’t that I’d lost interest in sex (I was a teenage girl, and only capable of two emotions- sulkiness and lust) it was that I simply didn’t have the understanding of body language, facial expression and social rituals I needed to date successfully. My attempts to get laid were causing me more confusion and self-loathing than happiness, so I decided to stop altogether. This kind of destructive behaviour has become so common that when I applied for autism specific counselling, ‘celibate’ was listed under the list of sexual orientations.
I find it sad and disheartening that so many autistic people have given up on romance, and in some cases become socially isolated because the rest of the world can’t put up with our quirkiness. One solution to this scenario is for autistics date someone who is also on the spectrum, and there are websites (such as Aspie Affection) dedicated exclusively to this. However, since only one in a hundred people are diagnosed with autism, and only one quarter of that group are women, just dating people with autism narrows our options considerably.
It’s not a struggle for everyone. Some high functioning autistics seem to find dating easy. Some autistic people do struggle with first dates, but we also have many qualities that would make us good partners, such as loyalty, honesty and dependability. Although autistic people may sometimes behave in a way you cannot understand, deep down we are driven by the same desires, urges and impulses as neurotypicals. If people could just look past the rocking, the flapping and the social awkwardness, I can guarantee they’d see great potential for a romantic partner.