Couples, Autism and Physical Intimacy by Tony Attwood and Michelle Garnett

Couples, Autism and Physical Intimacy by Tony Attwood and Michelle Garnett

In our recent webcast about couples where one or both partners are on the autism spectrum, we discussed verbal, emotional and physical intimacy. We explained the challenges an autistic person can experience with disclosing and articulating their intimate thoughts and feelings, due to difficulties with introspection, self-reflection and alexithymia. Both verbal and emotional intimacy can be affected, leaving one or both partners experiencing loneliness in the relationship and a yearning to know more about their partner, and to be known.

Low emotional intimacy can affect physical intimacy leading to less connection through sex. But there are other aspects of autism that can affect frequency and pleasure in physical intimacy, including different levels of motivation for sex, sensory sensitivities, difficulties with the ‘choreography’ of physical intimacy, and ability to resonate with each other’s expressions and depth of love.

As with many couples there will be variations in the motivation for sex. Neurotypicals often consider sex as the ultimate expression of love, and may feel confident and intuitive in what to do and achieve together. An autistic adult may feel differently about sex, and may not have the same degree of confidence and intuition. Instead, they may have a sense of performance anxiety, and concern that his or her partner, and they themselves, will be disappointed.  If you do not try, you do not experience failure or rejection. Fear of failure or being judged can lead to avoidance of sex and physical intimacy.

A dimension of autism is sensory sensitivity. Having sex requires the ability to relax. However, it is very difficult to relax when experiencing certain tactile, olfactory or other sensory experiences as being uncomfortable or aversive. A partner may avoid sex because of specific sensory experiences, not feeling confident to discuss the discomfort openly.

There is also a ‘choreography’ or ‘dance’ and synchrony of movements and sensory experiences that occurs in sex. There can be the expectation that sex is the ultimate expression of connection, rapport and resonance. One of the characteristics of autism is a difficulty achieving a deep level of connection and rapport with another person. The experiences and expectations of love-making may cause anxiety and a sense of physical and thinking rigidity that affects the sexual ‘dance’.

Other factors that may impact sexual desire include issues of being able to achieve privacy, have sufficient energy, and to perceive oneself and partner as attractive. Autistic adults are often self-critical of their physique and may be inexperienced in the subtle art of foreplay, due to less experience of sex prior to the relationship.

We recommend reading Chapter 8, Sexual Issues, of Maxine Aston’s recent second edition of The Autism Couple’s Workbook which includes advice on making a partner feel special, aspects of sensory sensitivity, passion reducers and new ways of sexual communication.

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