Autistic people may experience certain challenges when it comes to sex and relationships. However, an autistic person can have a fulfilling sex life.

Autism can affect how a person communicates, learns, behaves, and socially interacts with others.

It does not require a cure. Being autistic can simply mean a person’s brain works in a way that is different from what society expects.

Autism is known as a spectrum disorder as it can affect people in different ways. Some autistic people require higher levels of support than others. This can mean they require assistance with daily tasks or skills such as language and behavior.

Other autistic people may need low levels of support or no support at all.

Autism frequently causes a person to have difficulty with social interactions. This may provide some challenges when it comes to forming relationships.

Read on to learn more about autism and sex, including how autism affects the development of sexuality and how to help an autistic person understand their sexual feelings.

An autistic person riding a bike with their partner.Share on Pinterest
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If an autistic person needs help to understand their sexual feelings, a friend or family member may be able to assist. It is important for an autistic person to know that there is nothing wrong with having sexual feelings.

A person can help an autistic loved one understand that sex is natural and should be enjoyable. However, sexual behaviors are private and should only involve consenting adults.

When discussing sexual feelings with an autistic person, the following tips may be beneficial:

  • Let them know they are safe to discuss how they are feeling and that they can ask any questions about sex and sexuality.
  • Communicate openly and honestly, and without judgment.
  • Discuss sex education with them.
  • Teach them how to communicate with a sexual partner about things they do and do not enjoy.
  • Speak with them about boundaries and how to discuss these with a sexual partner.
  • Let them know they deserve to be treated with respect by any prospective partner.

Autism does not prevent a person from developing sexually. A study from 2021 found that most autistic adolescents and young adults have an interest in sex and relationships.

The study also noted that, on average, autistic adolescents and young adults had less knowledge of sex and privacy. This meant they were more likely to engage in inappropriate sexual behaviors.

Researchers think this lack of sexual knowledge may be due to factors such as:

  • difficulties with social interaction
  • insufficient sexual education
  • ableism that assumes autistic people do not have sexual feelings
  • stigmatization
  • exclusion from social interaction

It is important to provide sufficient sex education for autistic adolescents. This can help them learn what is and is not socially acceptable.

Additionally, sex education can prepare autistic adolescents for changes in their bodies as they go through puberty.

Planned Parenthood suggests parents and caregivers should aim to teach their children about:

  • puberty, before their body begins developing
  • reproductive health and how to reduce the risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections
  • appropriate and inappropriate behaviors

Sometimes an autistic person may have difficulty with eye contact. In this case, it may be helpful to discuss these topics on a walk side-by-side or while preparing a meal together.

A parent or caregiver may also try having conversations using “what if” questions to develop solutions, such as “what if a period begins at school?”

They should also be aware of any crushes the child or adolescent has and talk about how to be respectful of boundaries.

The following organizations and resources may be helpful:

According to the Organization for Autism Research (OAR), some autistic people may find that intimate activities help them feel less stressed or anxious.

However, some aspects of autism may lead to challenges.

Sensory sensitivity

For some people, sensory sensitivity to the sounds and physical sensations of sex may cause a person to feel uncomfortable.

If a person is uncomfortable or does not want to do something, they should share this with their partner. No one should feel required to do anything they are not comfortable with.

Discussing their needs with a partner can make it easier to find solutions. For example, people can tie their hair up if the tickling causes discomfort, or they can wear lightweight clothes during sex if skin-to-skin contact feels uncomfortable.

Communication

When entering into a sexual relationship, communication is always important.

People may benefit from discussing their needs with their partner before engaging in sexual activity.

They may find the following tips beneficial:

  • Decide on a safe word or sound that indicates “stop.”
  • Decide on a “yes, no, or maybe” list before engaging in physical activity.
  • Keep a notepad near the bed to write notes they can point to if needed.

An autistic person may feel worried about disclosing their autism to a potential partner. They may fear that the person will think differently of them. An autistic person should only disclose their diagnosis if they are comfortable sharing it.

People may wish to end a sexual relationship if their partner:

  • ignores their communication needs
  • ignores their sensory needs
  • tries to make them feel bad

Sex can also be overwhelming. Autistic people may find it hard to communicate when they are overwhelmed. This can lead to feelings of anxiety or discomfort.

People can arrange to express gestures that indicate “yes” or “no” during sex. If people become overwhelmed during sex and cannot communicate verbally, they can tap their partner on the back to indicate that they want the activity to stop.

Picking up on verbal or nonverbal cues can be difficult for some autistic people.

An autistic person may benefit from letting potential partners know they need to be direct with them. This can also be helpful during sex, as an autistic person may not notice if their partner is signaling discomfort.

The best thing a person can do while in a sexual relationship is to communicate with the other person. Talking openly and honestly can make things more enjoyable.

Public vs. private

Knowing the difference between behavior that is acceptable in public and private settings is important. It can help to keep everyone safe.

The following table outlines some examples of behaviors and when they might be appropriate:

Location exampleAppropriate behavior
Privatehome bathroom or bedroom· sexual activity
· masturbation
· personal hygiene, such as bathing
Semi-privatelocker rooms or doctor’s exam room· getting undressed
· using the bathroom
Semi-publicwork office or living room · personal conversations
Publicgrocery store· holding hands
· a brief kiss on the cheek

Healthy relationships

Relationships can be difficult to navigate, and there are many types. Depending on the relationship, a person’s behavior can be appropriate or inappropriate.

Romantic relationships involve people having an emotional and potentially sexual connection with each other that is consensual and reciprocal.

The OAR notes that healthy relationships include the following characteristics:

  • communication
  • trust
  • being emotionally respectful
  • being physically respectful
  • honesty
  • equality
  • being accepting of each other

Dating

Dating can be complex, and it is important to remember that:

  • Having a crush is natural, and it is possible to have a crush on more than one person.
  • It is fine not to have a crush on anyone.
  • Flirting can be fun, but respecting other people’s boundaries is important.
  • Being in a relationship can be challenging, and communicating is important.
  • Although it is difficult, ending relationships is sometimes necessary.

Online relationships and safety

The internet can be a good place to develop relationships, providing a person remains safe.

When they are online, people should remember the following rules:

  • A person does not have to share or post anything they do not want to.
  • A person should take precautions if they decide to follow an online meeting with a real-life meeting.
  • Assume that anyone can find the information a person posts online.
  • Never share any personal details, including financial information and full birth date, with anyone on the internet.
  • Never engage with any sexually explicit materials that include people under 18 years of age.

Sexual feelings are natural and not something a person should be ashamed of. It is also natural for a person not to have sexual feelings. People should never be made to feel shame for their sexuality.

Expressing sexuality can be healthy for an autistic person. Research from 2020 found a link between sexual dissatisfaction and depressive symptoms and lower mental health. An autistic person may find that sexual behaviors help reduce anxiety or stress.

Certain aspects of autism may make sexual activities more challenging. However, an autistic person can speak to their partner or loved one about any concerns or worries they may have.

Helping an autistic person understand sexual feelings and navigate a range of related issues can be important. Without proper education, people may feel worried or unprepared when it comes to sex.

To discover more evidence-based information and resources for autism, visit our dedicated hub.