Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Sense and Sensitivity

Every time we kiss, it's like an inside joke I always miss.
--Black Kids, "I've Underestimated My Charm (Again)"

One of Willendork's recent posts has inspired me to make my own post about asexuality and autism. Hopefully it will be illuminating. If you're looking for an epic post, you've got it. But never fear, pop culture will return very shortly.

The reason why I'm interested in the topic (and would like to think I have special insight into it) is because I'm on the autistic spectrum myself. I'm not sure how to write persuasively about autistic issues without telling you this. Much like ye olde spectrum of sexuality, the autistic spectrum (I've heard it called a "nebula", which is pretty apt) covers an extremely wide range of people. There are those with Asperger's or Nonverbal Learning Disorder (NLD) who can pass for normal, and there are those with "classic" autism who are nonverbal or have a hard time doing most things independently. I feel weird calling myself autistic, since the world usually connotes a person that I don't really resemble. But I do have a diagnosis (NLD) that places me there, whether it sounds good or not. I was in denial for years about being "different" in this way. Maybe that's why I came around to asexuality rather quickly; I had already resigned myself to being "different" by that time. I think I've "come out" as autistic twice in my life. (Now I guess I'm coming out to everyone, which is pretty scary!) I hardly ever do it because it's 100 times harder to explain than asexuality. For instance, I've only met one other person with an NLD diagnosis in my life. Like asexuality, most professionals are still in the dark ages when it comes to the autistic spectrum, let alone laypeople.

Defining the terms for this post is difficult. But for the sake of manufactured simplicity, I'm going to call everyone on the autistic spectrum, including myself, "autistic", even though they might refer to themselves as being Aspies (people with Aspergers) or something else. Now, here are some statements:
-Most asexual people are neurotypical (NT; not autistic)
-Many if not most autistic people are sexual
-But there is a significant number of autistic asexuals. Very relevant linkage:
the Tantra, Intimacy, and Asperger's Syndrome Project did a survey in which 8% of the respondents identified their orientation as asexual. Also, check out this poll on, a forum for autistic folks. 30% of the women surveyed "feel asexual all the time" and 52% more "feel asexual sometimes". In an AVEN survey, 8% of asexuals respondants had been officially diagnosed with Asperger's. (I've been told that the number of Aspies is about 1% of the general population.) 8% more of the respondents were self-diagnosed, and those people are usually found to be correct. All things considered, these are very large numbers.

I think it's interesting that there are many facets of autism that might increase the likelihood of one's asexuality. However, autism cannot be the cause, because asexual autistics are still in the minority. But it's interesting to note some features of autism that might make people averse to being sexual:

-A dislike of touch. Many autistic folks don't like to be touched at all, and some only like to be touched in certain ways (for example, they can tolerate pressured touch but not light touch).
-Most autistic people also have a hypersensitivity across all or some of their senses. This includes touch. Many sensations that are un-noticable to NTs will drive autistics crazy.
-Autistic people generally have little understanding and instinct towards nonverbal communication. Sex, as far as I can tell, is primarily nonverbal. We often don't understand social rituals like dating or flirting. We often can't tell if someone is interested in or attracted to us.
-Add that to the daily difficulty that most autistics experience securing their basic needs, and sex might start to seem like more trouble than it's worth.

But this whole exploration hinges on the way you view autism. If you view autism as a disease, then the idea that it could influence an orientation is bizarre at best and reflects poorly on all of us. But many people, including myself, don't think autism is a disease-- it's just a brain working in a very different way. It's a disability only because autistics live in a world that is at constant odds with the way our brains work. Add that to the fact that autism can give you strengths, like focus, attention to detail, verbal skill, logic, and creativity. Autistic people can "think outside the box" like none other, but we usually aren't welcomed into the box to begin with.

I think asexuals might be hesitant to discuss autism, because of Joy Davidson's (and presumably, others') claims that "we all just have Asperger's." What's implicit here is that if you have Asperger's, you should just be quiet and go away. As if by calling people autistic, you could shut them up. Statements like that are only persuasive if you have no idea what Asperger's is. If you do know, it's utterly ridiculous and completely undercuts whatever credibility she had. There's also the whole issue of "desexualizing people with disabilities". But something like blindless or paralysis lacks the cognitive features that autism has. Physical disabilities may not affect your personality much, whereas autism can't be divorced from it. But sexualizing disabled people makes just as little sense as desexualizing them. A presumed heterosexuality should not be projected onto disabled people; I feel that does more harm than good.

Autistic people also need to discuss asexuality. Lots of autistics have no idea what asexuality is, and I've heard many misconceptions and damaging statements about asexuality from autistic people. I'm shocked at some of the ignorance I see on Wrongplanet, the same forum where a huge percentage of women said they felt asexual. Maybe it's a case of disenfranchised people trying to feel better than others, but I've never understood the logic of that.

I'm not sure how to end this, except to say that I hope I clarified the asexuality/autism connection a little. I think that our struggles, like most struggles, connect and relate. We seem to be at similar stages in our movements, and could learn a lot from one another. Let's face it, the world doesn't really understand asexuality or autism either, yet. So it would behoove neuroqueers and regular queers to stick together. Is that such a crazy idea?


emma-rainbow said...

Now that *is* interesting. I've never thought about it that way.

I'm also shocked I can't remember Joy Davidson saying we all have Aspergers. I would have been equally cross. Grrr.

Heh, in my family, it's the aspie who's straight...

Ily said...

Now that *is* interesting. I've never thought about it that way.
Hey, good! That's what I was trying to accomplish

grasexuality said...

Hmm... I've sometimes wondered if I might be on the autistic spectrum, or else whether I might be schizotypal. A lot of the symptoms fit, but then again, many of them don't. I think I may be on the borderline between being neurotypical, and being different enough to be diagnosed (what is it with me and being on the borderline anyway?). I actually never used to think about myself as anything other than neurotypical, but in the past few years I've been realizing that maybe I am more different than I thought I was, mostly because other people have commented on it. It's difficult to judge how typical or not typical I am, since I can't really step outside myself to see. I refrain from self-diagnosis because I don't think I understand it well enough to say one way or the other.

If ever I did get officially diagnosed, it might explain some things, but I think it would leave more questions in my mind than explanations: specifically, on the interplay of autism and asexuality. Due to the kind of assumptions that Joy Davidson makes, my asexuality would seem to me to be more clear-cut (although certainly not black and white) without a diagnosis. So in a way, yeah, I'm hesitant to discuss it because of that, but a second reason I feel hesitant to discuss asexuality and autism is because I really don't know so much about it. To that end, your post has been helpful--and I would be curious to hear more about it, too, if at some point you feel up to sharing.

Ily said...

As far as being on the borderline goes, I don't think that's unusual at all. Having to be one thing or another is way too simplistic. It might make society easier to function as a whole or something, but it's sort of rubbish when it comes to trying to understand yourself. I'm glad the post was helpful!

willendork said...

totally fascinating; I'm glad you clarified some of this. like most of the NT world, I am seriously under-educated about autism, despite knowing a handful of people who land somewhere on the spectrum. and wow -- yet another reason to smack Joy Davidson if I ever meet her. good to know. ::eyeroll::

p.s. I'm inspiring! yeay! :)

Mary said...

Sex, as far as I can tell, is primarily nonverbal.

In truth, sex can be highly verbal or completely nonverbal--it just depends on the people and the mood. It's a myth perpetrated by the movies that sex is conducted in silence or with only apropos speech, whether dirty or romantic.

Superquail said...

It's interesting to me the way people in general react to different kinds of "weird." There are definitely "good" kinds of weird, like people who are exceptionally tall are often praised for it and recruited for basketball teams, or people who are exceptionally beautiful tend to get a lot of things for free, etc.

When it comes to neurological or psychological conditions in which a person is different but looks just like anyone else, there seems to be a great resistance to accepting them as "different." People assume that you can just stop doing that thing and "be normal."

I have Tourette's Syndrome and when I tell people this they usually think it is very funny and they ask if I blurt out swear words. I never have and I do not know any one with Tourette's who does, but thanks to Hollywood, this is the impression everyone has. I think it is worse when people think they know what a condition is and are wrong rather than knowing nothing at all. Because when I say that I hate repeated words and phrases (they really drive me nuts) or that bright lights stress me out, people decide that I am just whining and can get over it. If I were to blurt out swear words though, they would be very understanding. ;)

Superquail said...

I think you make an excellent point, Mary. There is this vision of sex that involves two people interacting in perfect union like dance partners, neither one saying anything but both knowing exactly what to do. It doesn't happen like that! But the myth is so persuasive that a lot of people forgo saying things that really should be said because they think that talking is not allowed.

Ily said...

Ah, sorry, being way too broad again...That's true, I'm sure people talk during sex...I wasn't trying to get at the actual mechanics; more the overall process of a romantic relationship. I mean, ever kissed someone without asking, "can I kiss you?" first? Communication in general is supposed to be 90% nonverbal, right? If you don't understand any nonverbal communication, it can be hard to even get to sex (if you want to); you're unlikely to get past flirting. If I did ever want to have sex, I'd have no idea how to go about it besides posting an ad on Craigslist's "Casual Encounters". For autistic folk, I think getting to sex is probably 100x more complicated than the actual sex itself. I know I watch too many movies, but I really get my ideas from lots of places, honest...

Superquail said...

There was one time when a guy asked if he could kiss me, and I thought it was really sweet and sexy.

But all of this is beside the point. Anyone who finds social interactions mystifying would probably have a very hard time conducting a romantic relationship.

Ily said...

Even worse than mystifying, I personally find many of them pointless. I think many aspies/auties would agree with me on that (and some NT rebels). That's one reason (among many) why I have such a hard time finding a job. The idea of faking enthusiasm literally makes me feel sick. That sounds dramatic, but I haven't found a way around it yet. And I have acting training!

gatto said...

I think like most autistics my interest in things tends to be either extreme or nonexistent, and rarely in between. There aren't a lot of things I find only mildly interesting. Maybe that pattern would explain the prevalence of asexuality among autistics. I don't find sex appealing. I mean, it's only interesting from an anthropological standpoint to me, not something I would want as a hobby. If most autistics follow this pattern of either extreme interest or disinterest in things, then besides a high prevalence of asexual autistics, there should also be a high prevalence of sex-obsessed autistics. I bet that is the case, although I don't have any data on that. For reasons you mention, though, I expect most of those autistics would tend to be a fairly frustrated lot. But maybe not... people can get very good at things when they're obsessed enough. It's interesting to consider.

Ily said...

Gatto, that is a really interesting idea! I hadn't thought about it that way, but that could easily be a factor in all this.

Anonymous said...

i also have issues with being touched (if it is by people i do not know very well or do not trust very good) - BUT if it is done by a person who i love with all my heart - then i have no issue with it. to me - it depends on how long i know the person, if they are trusted or not, and weither or not i love them very much.

Andreas said...

Really an amazing post!
You did a great job considering all the ins and outs. I think the worst part is the confusion that an explanation would bring!
I believe I have NLD (not so much AS, though they overlap like crazy).
I definitely think there is a range, but I think the high numbers are related to not instinctively reading the cues. I wouldn't call myself asexual, but I'm nowhere near as much as many other (generally NT) people.

It's great when someone else "gets it"!
Thanks for fulfilling read!

Ily said...

Thanks, Andreas! I'm glad you could relate to the post. I agree that explaining NLD is really difficult. Even "the experts" can't agree on it.