When You Have Autism, Consent And Communication During Sex Is Even More Complicated

Vague flirting and the expectation to read your body language is more likely to stress me out than turn me on.
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Read any advice on improving your sex life, from Cosmo columns to online how-tos, and the first thing you’ll see will be about the value of communication. It is incredibly important – but when you are autistic like me, it’s not always so simple.

While autism affects every person differently, difficulty with communication is one of the most unifying experiences. I used to be anxious about whether I was reading body language, facial expressions and those subtle nuanced changes, and worry about whether or not I was interpreting things correctly. As a result, I became nervous not only about sex, but about any situation which might lead to it – from nights out with friends to casual dates.

At one point, I actually swore off sex forever, resigning myself to spinsterhood. I was 20 and being slightly melodramatic, but the reality was that I could not envisage being calm enough about sex to consider being intimate with someone. I’ve had plenty of social mishaps and awkward moments derived from me not understanding the tone or subtle social nuances – but when it comes to intimate relationships, where both you and your partners are vulnerable with each other, those miscommunications can mean greater ramifications.

“When friend would recount their experiences flirting and getting off with strangers, I would sit there confused as to how they even knew other people were interested.”

Not having exciting sexual escapades during my first few years at university was isolating. While my friends at university were enjoying the freedom that comes with not living with your parents, I was sat at home alone. When they would recount their experiences flirting and getting off with strangers, I would sit there confused as to how they even knew that other people were interested.

To try and counter this, I make it clear to partners from the start that I’m autistic and that I can need clear directions – vague flirting and an expectation to read body language is more likely to stress me out than turn me on. For some, this might sound like the most unsexy thing in the world, but it doesn’t seem to be for me and potential partners – if anything we are reassured each of us feels safe enough to even have that discussion.

When I came out as a lesbian at fourteen I became the go-to person to ask about sex, queer or otherwise. For some reason, that came with an assumption that I was a font of all knowledge when it came to things like scissoring and how to flirt with women (oh, how I wish that were true). As a result, I have always been fairly clued up about sex and where to find information about it. That being said, there’s been a lot of trial and error to get to this point. There have been times where partners and I caused inadvertent (but never serious) harm to one another, caused physical pain, or frankly just did not enjoy the sex we were having.

In spite of this, I had found almost nothing about sex and disability. Even now, years later, so little has been written on autistic people and how we have sex – even by autistic people ourselves – that you might be fooled into thinking we were not doing it at all.

“As a queer disabled girl, I never received any sex education that would be relevant to me, and was forced me to find out things for myself.”

That’s because autistic folks, like many disabled people, are seen as wholly non-sexual. Disabled people are seen as undateable, and those of us with autism as heartless or empathetic. As a queer disabled girl, I never received any sex education that would be relevant to me, and was forced me to find out things for myself – through both theoretical and let’s just say more practical research. It was incredibly difficult, but being forced to find these things out for myself meant that I was better educated than my peers. I’m more empowered and able to articulate what I want and need with clarity and confidence as a result.

Still, I would not want this for others. In hindsight, I was at a lot of risk. I was never taught about navigating boundaries, taught about how to know people’s intentions, even taught about my own safety and communicating my own needs. There’s little data on the subject, but what we do have indicates that autistic people are at higher risk of being victims of sexual abuse.

Sex and disability is still a topic society has not learned how to discuss. Even now, writing this piece, I know there will be people perturbed by the idea of disabled people having sex. That risks the safety and enjoyment of many different people who at could be deprived of the sex life they desire and at worst be put at risk of abuse.

Communication is, after all, a two-way street. The struggles autistic people like me might have are as much about people not knowing how to communicate with us as it is us struggling to communicate with them.

Ellen Jones is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter at @ellen__jones