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Asperger’s Syndrome Sex

Obsessive special interests. Lack of emotional affect. Stereotyped gestures. Speaks in a monotone... Dr. Alfred Kinsey began his career collecting thousands of gall wasp specimens but changed the world by diligently researching thousands of human sex histories. Kinsey was probably an Aspie. 

Dr. Mary Jane Sherfey, another pioneering sex researcher and author of The Nature and Evolution of Female Sexuality, described her former teacher: “...he rarely smiled at us. Neither face nor voice seemed to reveal an emotional reaction to anything... Dr. Kinsey was, unquestionably, one of the ten worst dressed men of eminence this country has ever produced. His head was covered with flying hair that always seemed as if it had invented a scheme for defying combs. His clothes were almost execrable; nonetheless he invariably wore a little bow tie... there he stood week after week with the dead-pan face and nasal voice twanging monotonously on and on and on...” Sherfey goes on to say, “Why in later years did I always put Dr. Kinsey’s name at the top of the list of the best college teachers I had; and yet be unable to explain why?” 

By the time I saw Liam Neeson’s portrayal of Kinsey, I was already accomplished at spotting quirky Asperger’s Syndrome-like characters in movies, television and books: Annie Savoy in Bull Durham; Mr. Spock (an easy pick!); the younger Hermione Granger in Harry Potter; all three major characters in Ghost World; Henry Higgins (especially as played by Leslie Howard); Sherlock Holmes (as originally written and especially as played by Jeremy Brett); Jacque Tati as Mr. Hulot; the train enthusiasts in The Station Agent; just to name a few. But since Alfred Kinsey is historical, not fictional, I was pleased to find later that my hunch had been a good one. Ioan James devotes a whole chapter to Dr. Kinsey in Asperger’s Syndrome and High Achievement

As the study of human sexual behavior owes quite a lot to the gifts and determination of at least one Aspie researcher (and I am sure there are others!), it seems fitting that I chose Asperger’s Syndrome and sexuality as my own first foray into sex research.

I had close to 100 survey respondents: 50 men and 47 women. The people who participated in my lengthy survey included those with an official diagnosis of AS and one with autism; those who suspected they might qualify for a diagnosis; those who identified as “Aspie” with or without a diagnosis; and about 17 NT (neurotypical) partners. As this is a column and not a journal article, I won’t go into detail about methodologies, demographics and conclusions. I also admit that my student survey could have been better. Even so, I received some fascinating revelations, especially in the open-ended responses. More on this in a moment...

On the Autism Spectrum
Asperger’s Syndrome is usually included in the “autism spectrum.” Some people differentiate AS from “high functioning autism” by saying that AS people have a greater desire for social interaction than people who are more classically autistic. The problem is, AS people struggle greatly with the demands and nuances of social—and sexual—interaction for a number of reasons and often fail to achieve the friendships and relationships they desire. Another feature of the AS condition is the propensity to have one or more consuming “special interests,” like Kinsey and gall wasps and Kinsey and sex research.

While people with autism have always been with us, the condition was not scientifically recognized or treated until comparatively recently. Before that people who showed extreme signs of autism were shunned as possessed or presumed to be changelings. They were probably often institutionalized, abused, given or sold into slavery, and/or killed. I once watched a fairy-like child walking through the park on her tiptoes. She was probably nine or 10. She knew exactly what was supposed to happen at various times of the day but didn’t know the word for grass. Such fey unworldliness might indeed seem magical to some and threatening to others. 

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mind readers

Maybe they expect everyone to be mindreaders because they are and not that much needs to be said but they are confused because no one else seems to be able to.

Hmmmm.

Hi Wildthing,

I'm not sure - I know I can't read minds. But thanks for reading the column!

Amy

want to love someone with AS

First, I want to thank you for your research as I believe all aspects of human behavior sexual and non should be studied and researched to at least a minimal point of understanding.

Secondly, I have a serious concern that maybe you can help with. I have chosen to begin a relationship with someone diagnosed with AS. We have so many things in common that it is uncanny. I enjoy much of the time I have with him. However, I am a highly emotional & sensitive person; to the point of being "empathic". In addition to this, i'm leaving one emotionally deprived relatiionship and, don't know how to weather another. Not to mention that because of my high emotional need, I am also highly sexual. I have no problem with teaching and guiding in the bedroom. In fact, I have no problem teaching and guiding my emotional needs elsewhere. I'm very open. But is this possible? He already is very very very careful when we discuss sex, not even coming close to matching my ability to be open and, in all fairness I don't expect him to be. I do however, want him to be. I understand that this just probably will not happen. How do we move forward into a happy, intimate & sexually intimate relationship?

Moving Forward

Hi Metta,
This is a very complex question. For starters, though, you might want to consider sensory integration issues either of you may have that could interfere with sexual behavior; and find a way to create a very safe, non-threatening time and place (with clear conversational and behavior guidelines - limiting to one topic at a time) for discussion. You will probably get your best result by using direct, unambiguous language that is very specific.
But be prepared to cultivate a very different pattern of emotional needs and expectations - you probably cannot count on anything other than periods of intense focus, followed by recovery periods.
Good luck!

Disagree, agree

Hello --

I'm a 32 year old guy with AS. Interesting post, sort of. I disagree with some of your ideas (folks with AS have a hard time believing somebody isn't out to get them when that person brings up the Cassandra disorder), but I don't feel qualified to comment on them so I won't. However, I will say that your book recommendation is poor. The Henault book is rather not-helpful. It has too much exposition and background info on AS and very little in the way of coping techniques or theories as to how and why body issues and sexuality interacts with AS. Furthermore, it is not written for people with AS. It is written for therapists and the like, and so many parts of it are hard to understand from the insider perspective, and other parts are just irrelevant (namely the worksheets and so on towards the end). It is, however, one of the few books I have seen on sexuality and AS, and I've looked for them for a long time...

You are correct, though, that most AS books and studies have focused on straight sex. It is my experience that straight men and women on the spectrum are a rarity. I have many friends with AS, and it is a very small portion that is not gay, bi, transgendered, or queer in any way. I have seen some studies on the matter, but they need to be reproducible. I think it is an interesting topic (for obvious reasons) and I suspect that we are just starting to see people look into this.

Good points

Hi Laerm,
Thank you very much for writing. Let me address a few of your points.

1) I know the Cassandra disorder is considered controversial by many AS people, however I have worked with a few clients who were NT's living in relationships with an AS person, and they described their emotional states as very close to Maxine Aston's description. For these NT people who communicated with me, this state was absolutely agonizing, almost to the point of suicide (in one case). In all cases, they described their emotions and experiences without having known that Aston (or anyone else) had described or named what they were going through. Of course this is anecdotal, but I include it because it seems to be part of the very complicated picture of NT/AS reactions. But I don't include the Cassandra stuff to "blame" AS people for how things go - my point is that NT folks have to open their eyes, take responsibility too, and acquire a great deal of self knowledge and the capacity for serious inquiry into how to create a working relationship - in a way that's not based on NT norms.

I'd like to ask for some patience with this topic, as I think we all need to understand that there's "wiring" and there's socialization (as well as culture) and that these things affect all of our individual responses to emotional and physical affection (or lack of it) as well as our expectations for how to have it or give it in a relationship.

What follows is a speculative thought: perhaps those NTs who experience the kinds of things that Maxine Aston describes (and that I have heard) are on the furthest "edge" of a spectrum of emotional/affectionate requirements. These are probably the people who should not be involved in a relationship with an AS person unless they have lots and lots of training in modulating and moderating their own responses and expectations.

2) I included the Henault book because it IS "one of the few" and it includes a systematic sex education curriculum which can be adopted or adapted by sex educators and therapists. But I also don't think it is specific enough to AS people's needs OR includes much beyond very, very basic heterocentrist info. So I do agree with you.

I should have also mentioned Wendy Lawson's book, Sex, Sexuality and the Autism Spectrum - especially as she has ASD, is a lesbian and discusses queer issues. And also Autism-Asperger's & Sexuality - Puberty and Beyond by Jerry and Mary Newport. If you know of others, please post them here.

Again, thank you for reading and commenting on the columns. My desire is to help get the momentum going, with regard to inquiry - on both or all sides - and I certainly don't claim to have all the answers.
Sincerely,
Amy Marsh

1) Point taken. I guess that

1) Point taken. I guess that folks with AS get tired of causing difficulties in others lives (with good reason, sometimes), that it's disheartening to hear that someone has come up with a disorder specifically resulting from dealing with us. :P

2) Yes, I saw in your follow-up posts you mentioned the Lawson book. I feel that has far more useful info for many people with AS than the Henault book. I do not know of many others -- part of me wishes I have found more, but most of me is happy with learning about myself as I go along, and not through a book. :)

Thanks for the response, I will watch this site for more of your writing about AS and sexuality.

Thanks again

Yeah, I can understand that people with AS are constantly bombarded with messages about how troublesome they are (etc. etc.). Very seldom are they given credit and appreciation for the gifts they bring - which are substantial, often influential, and to me - essential. Many people who have exhibited AS or ASD "traits" (even if they weren't diagnosed) have altered the world for the best. For me, Alfred Kinsey is a great example.

These great "gifts" can also come in relationship, not just through life work. If you haven't already, you can read last year's column, Off Road Tantra, for a personal account of my relationship with another pivotal person who - to my mind, and eventually his too - "showed traits". I was immeasurably enriched and matured by this connection - though at first I suffered many of the "symptoms" that Maxine Aston describes. When I adjusted my NT expectations and conducted my relationship with this person "as if" AS was part (only a part!!!) of the picture, things were much better. And to adjust in this way was a gesture of respect and consideration that helped to deepen the connection we had - at least because he saw me working hard to make those adjustments, even if he didn't understand the reasons why they were necessary in the first place. Greater emotional maturity was developed through having to grapple with the difficulties of bridging the emotional relatedness gap. The gesture of unconditional love was truly meaningful as a result.

Thanks again for reading and responding!

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Amy Marsh
May 19th, 2010
Amy Marsh's picture
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