Illustration by Cath Virginia
Even though conversations about autism tend to focus on what autistic people struggle with, I’m a firm believer that being autistic makes me better at pretty much everything I do—and this very much includes sex. Since the rules of interpersonal connection haven’t always come easily to me, I’ve read all about how to be a phenomenal partner. And being hypersensitive to certain sensory stimuli can come in handy in the bedroom: Sometimes a partner just breathing on me is exciting.
Advice on the finer points of having great sex.
I wasn’t diagnosed with autism until age 31. It would have been nice to have known I was autistic when I first started having sex, because I might have understood (and accepted) that my sexuality wasn’t the same as everyone else’s. For instance, I may have understood that the irrational rage I experience when my skin is lightly grazed isn’t necessarily the result of, say, repressed childhood trauma—for autistic people, anger or dismay in response to sensation can simply be a sign of sensory overload. Autistic people, like allistic (that is, non-autistic) people, are having amazing sex every day, but a lot of us could probably be having even better sex if we received advice that was geared specifically toward us. Toward that end, here are some tips from autistic people, experts, and those who fall into both categories on how to have an incredible time in bed when you’re on the autism spectrum—or if you want to be more sensitive to an autistic partner.
Many autistic people experience sensory sensitivities—strong reactions to sounds, sights, sensations, tastes, or smells. In the bedroom, this can make an autistic person highly responsive to both turn-offs and turn-ons. “There are times when I can feel my emotions with every cell in my body, so if that is a positive or euphoric emotion, that can be an amazing thing,” said Lauren Megrew, an autistic psychologist and psychotherapist.If you have this heightened ability to feel, you may be easily distracted by unpleasant feelings or thoughts related to them. As I mentioned, some autistic people dislike particular sensations such as being caressed very softly. “It makes them feel uncomfortable, or even angry,” said Christine Henry, a psychologist who works with autistic adults. In addition, sensory sensitivities experienced outside the bedroom may cause someone to need help relaxing and getting into the mood for sex. “Perhaps they have sensory overload from being around a loud coworker who was wearing strong perfume,” said Henry. “When they come home, they may need some space to reset from being overstimulated and reject any sexual advances.”
Account for and enjoy sensory sensitivities during sex
If you have difficulty with certain types of sensory stimulation, or need time to recover from overstimulation experienced elsewhere, communicate this to your partner. Megrew suggested saying, “I’m definitely into this, but I need another five minutes because my head hasn’t calmed down yet.”Some autistic people may not feel automatically equipped to do this. Some of us have been taught from a young age to suppress our natural inclinations and feelings to fit in (a strategy known as masking), explained autistic sex educator Jack Duroc-Danner. But he said that learning how to have “open, direct conversations with our partners about what we need” outside of the bedroom can help make them aware of any sensitivities that may come up. This way, we’re not under pressure to address everything in the moment. Within these conversations and sex itself, Duroc-Danner recommended “moving from performance to pleasure”—in other words, “focusing not on what it should look like, but how you want intimacy to feel for you.”
Some autistic people experience motor coordination differently from neurotypical people, which may necessitate deliberate planning when it comes to sex, said Duroc-Danner. For instance, some people may have difficulty coordinating movements or knowing where their arms and legs are in relation to the rest of their or a partner’s body. “Letting people know where you’re going to be moving your body before you start moving it” can be helpful, Duroc-Danner said, along with “moving slowly, and being aware of how you’re moving.”While planning is a good thing in some situations, autistic people can sometimes get so wrapped up in their plans that they have trouble being in the moment. “Another area that could cause some distress is when someone envisions sex or intimacy to go a certain way and gets frustrated when it does not happen as predicted,” said Henry. For instance, if someone believes, perhaps based on porn, that they or their partner should enjoy a certain kind of stimulation and they don’t, this could throw them off.
Know when to plan and when to go with the flow during sex
This can happen to anyone, whether or not they have autism, but unpredictability in the bedroom may be especially hard for autistic people due to cognitive rigidity—difficulty changing one’s mindset. Cognitive rigidity likely stems from sensory overwhelm and a consequent desire to feel in control, said Duroc-Danner. “One consequence of sensory differences and motor differences [can be] feeling that their body, other bodies, and the world aren’t safe or predictable,” he explained.“If my partner is late, I knock over a candle, it ends up messy, timings mess up, or whatever can go wrong [does], I’ll have a meltdown,” said Rose Lauren Hughes, a 29-year-old autistic neurodiversity and disability specialist in Belgium. In cases like this, it helps to remember that sex almost never goes as planned, and that’s OK (in fact, it’s part of why sex is great). Henry suggested reminding yourself that “there is no set sexual script, and people have all sorts of variation when it comes to sex.” Basically, when you’re making plans, also plan to be surprised.You can also incorporate expressions of cognitive rigidity into sex itself. For instance, this set of behaviors can show up as a need for structure in one’s schedule, which can create concerns about how long sex lasts. “I have engaged in roleplay of sorts where we used a timer, which was fun for me… having that time set and the boundary in control,” said Hughes. “In moments where I've been able to enjoy sexual activity before I need to be out or go somewhere, I say, ‘OK, we have 10 minutes,’ I ask Google to set an alarm, and the situation becomes more intense due to my partner and I racing that clock. But it's always playful, never overly conducted!”
Many people have trouble quieting their minds and focusing during sex. This may be particularly challenging for autistic people, because their minds are working overtime to process a lot of information all at once, said Megrew. Hughes describes her inner dialogue during sex in the following way: “Smells. Lighting. Temperature. Have I shaved? Am I bloated? Have I got to pee? Do I smell? Did I brush my teeth? Is there something nearby for cleanup? My shoes in the corner aren’t straight… That’s my brain when it should be, Ooh, that feels nice.”In situations like these, Hughes sometimes finds it helpful to use a blindfold. “If I close my eyes, there is no risk of being distracted by literally anything,” she said, adding that she enjoys positions facing away from her partner. “Eye contact is super hard for my autism,” Hughes said, so she prefers to avoid the overstimulation that can come with it.Some autistic people find certain sensory stimuli, such as textures or smells, to be comforting when they get overanxious, and these individuals may also gravitate toward BDSM. “A lot of people utilize rope because they like the way it feels,” said Duroc-Danner. Other textures people enjoy could include those of toys, like feather ticklers or floggers. Hughes said that cold, hard textures do it for her. “We put metal in the fridge and then use it in a tantric way,” she said. “I find it calming for my sensory needs.”
Minimize anxiety triggers during sex
Another way autistic people commonly soothe themselves is by listening to the same song on repeat, and this strategy can also be utilized during sex, said Megrew. She suggested creating a playlist of just a few favorite sexy songs, perhaps ones without lyrics for minimal distraction. “It’s sort of a preemptive strike,” she said. “If I know my brain is going to be distracted by anything and everything it hears from my environment, I’d rather give it something that is going to keep my head on what I want to keep it on.”
Like all of us, autistic people can benefit from having explicit conversations with partners about what each person wants in the bedroom to avoid any miscommunications that may stem from difficulty reading social cues. “I like to talk about sex before having it,” said Hughes. “Every person, neurodiverse or not, still has personal preferences. It’s just become apparent to me that in order to have an optimized experience, I need to understand and express my needs.”Those who struggle with knowing what to do in social situations may appreciate having some kind of structure to adhere to, which is another reason BDSM can come in handy. Megrew sometimes recommends BDSM to autistic clients who want a script to follow during sex. “One of the things that can be very difficult for my brain is not knowing what the expectation is,” she said. “When I am playing the role of a dom or a sub, there's a very clear expectation of what to do and how to do it.”The fact that autistic people don’t always follow social scripts can be a positive thing, allowing them to have sex in whatever way works for them and express themselves freely. “As autistic people, we’re very direct and upfront,” said autism sexuality advocate Amy Gravino. “As startling as it can be at first, it is beneficial. When I became more able to assert myself, it became an asset to be able to say, ‘Yes, more, faster,’ or, ‘I don’t like that.’”Personally, since I sometimes find social interactions awkward, I love how sex can make me feel completely in tune with someone else. Autistic people who struggle with relationships may even find sex to be a healing experience, allowing them to form connections and feel close to others. “A lot of times with neurodivergence, there are sensory experiences we avoid, but we can relearn them in a positive way” though sex, said Michelle Hunt, a psychotherapist specializing in autism. “If we learn that touching during sex is from someone we love, we can reframe it in a positive association. For example, ‘I don’t like being touched—but if it’s from a spouse, it’s OK.’”Whatever your specific desires and preferences are, embracing them is the key to having a satisfying sex life, whether you’re autistic or not. “It’s really about having your desires validated to know that you’re OK, there’s nothing wrong with you,” said Gravino. “And finding a partner who’s willing to listen.”Follow Suzannah Weiss on Twitter.