teen couple looking at each other

Sex, Relationships, and ASD

At York University, in our Asperger Mentorship Program, we meet with young adults with ASD to talk about daily life and provide them with assistance in areas that they are struggling with.  As a mentor, I have had several students discuss (quite openly and honestly) difficulties with finding and maintaining romantic relationships, and confusion in sexual situations.

To my surprise, it was difficult to find resources on the topic. Sexuality, in terms of physical expression of sexual desires and romantic relationships, is a topic that has flown under the research radar in the world of ASD for a long time.

Still today, there are relatively few studies that examine this often-perceived “taboo” subject. Perhaps it is due to a misconception that all individuals with ASD are sexually immature, do not experience sexual attraction, are asexual, or are unaware and uninterested in sexuality and intimacy. In contrast, recent research (Gilmour, Schalomon, & Smith, 2012; Haracopos & Pedersen, 2004; Hénault & Attwood, 2002) has has demonstrated that people with ASD are interested in sex, have levels of sexual interest similar to those of the general population, and engage in sexual behaviours, both person- and self-oriented. Research has also begun to explore sexual orientation in this population (Click here to see our summary of the Gilmour, Schalomon, and Smith 2012 study).

There are many things that can get in the way of successful romantic relationships for individuals on the spectrum. One man with Asperger Syndrome on Youtube articulates many of these issues related to sex and sexuality in ASD.

He explains how for him, a combination of physical over and under sensitivity and difficulty with social cues make relationships and sexual encounters hard to navigate. Relationships and understanding nonverbal cues are core components that lead to sexual experiences, and for many individuals with an ASD these are difficult to manage.

A student with an ASD caught me off guard when he said to me, “If you have had a boyfriend, then I am sure you have some tips for me for finding a girlfriend.” When I paused and reflected for a moment, I started to think about being a tween or teen and having discussions with friends about boys/girls we liked, how we could “get them to like us”, and what needed to be done to receive attention from those we are interested in pursuing a relationship with. This student and I explored how he had not had the opportunity to do this.

We began to see how a gap could quickly form between desires and the skills necessary to achieve and fulfill those desires.

Our Asperger Mentorship Program has started holding Relationship Workshops for York University students with Asperger Syndrome or ASD on a yearly basis to target sexual knowledge and the skills needed to form healthy romantic relationships. Although our team has found a few books to be helpful in designing our workshops (specifically “Asperger’s Syndrome And Sexuality: From Adolescence Through Adulthood” by Isabelle Henault), some of our most helpful tips have come from personal experiences. 

Take home message: Knowing that sexuality is a part of the lives of those with ASD should open the door to more research, which will hopefully lead to well designed interventions. Keep in mind that you don’t need a program to help an individual with ASD in this area, and to those with ASD there are some resources that you can explore yourself. Reading concrete literature that explains sexuality (Making Sense of Sex: A Forthright Guide to Puberty, Sex and Relationships for People with Asperger’s Syndrome by Sarah Attwood), watching videos to learn nonverbal detection skills, and asking trusted individual’s questions about sex and relationships may all be helpful.

Other resources:

Written by Michelle Viecili, M.A.