Sex can be awkward or challenging for anyone. But for people on the autism spectrum, navigating sexuality can be especially complicated.
According to research published in 2012 by the World Health Organization, children with intellectual disabilities have a 4.6 times higher risk of being sexually abused and assaulted than children who aren’t disabled, and adults with mental health conditions are at 4 times more likely to be victims of violence compared to those without. This stunning level of victimization, especially sexual victimization, has roots not only in a culture defined by power imbalances between people with disabilities and those without, but also in a culture that sees people with disabilities as nonsexual.
The autism spectrum is marked by challenges with social interactions and information: for example, understanding nonverbal cues can be difficult.
“Most autistic people have suffered consequences from isolation to physical violence when we’ve got social interaction ‘wrong’ in the past. This makes an already stressful thing even more so because we are waiting for the anger or coldness that will come if or when we misstep. If the interaction is sexually charged, the tension level is likely to be higher still,” says Sez Thomasin, a writer and sex educator on the spectrum.
For Dina Buno, star of the award-winning independent documentary Dina, sexual empowerment as a woman on the spectrum became important in adolescence. “I was taken advantage of the first time when I was 16. It’s not just about saying no: People manipulate you. We want to be friends with people. We want people to tell us they love us.”
The movie follows her during the months leading to her wedding with Scott Levin, who is also on the spectrum. The movie does not shy away from sexually charged moments as Buno attempts to communicate her needs to Levin via kisses, a gift of The Joy of Sex and straight-up discussion of her sexual desires. Ultimately, the movie presents the normal life of a couple on the spectrum, including their sexuality, which for most of us neurotypicals is not something we tend to consider.
But sexual beings they are, and, as Thomasin explains, “A massive barrier is teachers, parents and carers and colleagues in sexual health not seeing learning-disabled and neurodiverse people as adult/sexual beings.” Consequences for this lack of consideration include difficulties with navigating boundaries and consent, accepting their queer orientations and identities and understanding basic principles of sexual health and well-being.
But let’s be clear: These difficulties do not happen because people with disabilities are incapable of understanding these concepts. It’s because if they receive sexual education at all, it is rarely inclusive. Learning to navigate boundaries can be especially challenging to people on the spectrum.
“If an autistic person has not been explicitly taught about consent and what might make someone uncomfortable, there is a risk that they might be unaware of unspoken boundaries,” Thomasin says. “That’s why a culture of openness and being able to honestly communicate our desires and boundaries is especially great.”
To Buno, lack of education in consent can also drive people on the spectrum into the cycle of abuse: “It’s important to learn to say, ‘I don’t like this. I don’t like what you’re doing to me’. People on the spectrum are being sexually assaulted, and they feel somebody tells them somewhere along the line that they’re different, and they deserve what they’re getting.”
As they feel the pressure to act “normally,” people on the spectrum are also badly served by heteronormative sexual education. Thomasin found their experience with typical sexual education frustrating. “The assumption was that we all definitely wanted heterosexual sex and if we used condoms we were doing it right,” they say. “In that assumption, there was a coded message that not wanting sex or wanting queer sex were both aberrant. I obviously don’t know what it was like for neurotypical kids, but for me, those assumptions translated as instructions. ‘Have sex. With a man. Use condoms.’”
Sexual education is already generally subpar for neurotypical youth without disabilities. Any inclusion of queer sexuality and diverse gender identities immediately gets flagged as “trying to recruit teenagers” in the so-called “gay (or trans) agenda”. If it’s difficult for people without disabilities to navigate things like consent and queer sex, believing that the impoverished version of sexual education that people with disabilities receive actually serves them is delusional.
To be truly empowering, sexual educators have to learn about the different needs of people with diverse abilities; but more fundamentally, they must acknowledge that people with disabilities and people on the spectrum have the same sexual rights as everyone else.