Autism is part of my sexual identity. It influences this part of my identity as much as my gender and whom I find attractive. As a young woman, I had no idea I was seeing dating through the filter of autism. Something was different, but no one could put their finger on it. To this day, females on the spectrum are often misdiagnosed. Now that I have the diagnosis, it comes with a perspective I want to share with girls and young women on the spectrum. First, a little background.
Growing up on the autism spectrum
I grew up as an odd duck in a small town. Everyone knew I was smart but most people weren’t sure what to make of me. There was a lot of teasing, a practical joke or two from the boys in my class, and ostracization by too many kids to count. Adults listened better and were more patient, which led classmates to accuse me of being a teacher’s pet. I was oblivious to subtle social cues, and I wasn’t good at keeping quiet about my crush on a popular boy.
While in high school, I wanted to be asked out as much as any girl. My sexual identity was defined by my Catholic faith: find a nice, Catholic boy and be a good girl. The boy I liked was a smart, Catholic boy who was cute but not a jock—a logical choice. Lucky for him, I spent most of my time focused on a future in law enforcement, so I left him alone. Unlucky for him, I didn’t have good filters, a common aspect of autism. The day our honors English class discussed meaningful dreams, I cheerfully told everyone how I’d had a dream of having sex with someone I liked. The poor guy’s face and ears went scarlet, and the reaction from our classmates told me they knew exactly who I meant. That humiliation stuck with me a long time.
Other stresses affected my sexuality at the time. Cruel boys made me believe I was ugly and unworthy of romance. Another aspect of autism is the tendency to take people at their word. When a bunch of boys called me “Olive Oyl” every day for three school years, it was hard to ignore. My height, chicken legs, and flat chest made me a target, and I believed I literally looked like Olive Oyl. The perms my grandmother forced on me made things worse because I couldn’t care for my hair. My track coach even said I looked like a brunette Annie. I learned to tie back my hair and hide it under baseball caps. To slouch. I learned not to speak about my crushes for fear of hurting the object of my affection. I learned that I was less than everyone because I was ugly.
I couldn’t accept that the nice things people said were true because the bad things were louder in my head. I gained a little confidence my senior year, but there was a new obstacle, a niggling one that shook me to my religious core.
Religion and sexual identity
Catholicism meant everything to me when I was a teen. Even though I wanted to be a cop, I also wanted to be a nun. I figured that if no boy wanted me, at least Jesus would. Somewhere along the way, I heard of something I had never imagined. I heard that girls could like girls, and boys could like boys. In my Law Enforcement Explorer program, there was a girl who was an open lesbian. She humored me when I pestered her with questions. Ultimately, I decided two things. First, I couldn’t be gay because I was attracted to certain boys. Second, the Church said homosexuality was sinful. I didn’t want to risk my soul.
My views of the world were colored by beliefs dictated by Rome. Many autistic people tend to be inflexible about the “rules” by which they live (cognitive rigidity). For me, that meant that Church teachings were law. I had to deny the strong sexual desires I felt as a teen and could never consider being with another female. Eventually, I learned to open my mind and heart to other modes of thought. Logic grew more important than superstition in many ways.
Navigating college and dating
My years at an all-women’s college were better, but I was awkward at mixers with the guys from the college across town. When I met my future husband, he was just as awkward. I met him at a frat party my sophomore year. We were the only two people not drinking, we both had low self-esteem, and neither of us was used to someone of the opposite sex paying attention to us. Dating was new. It was logical. We understood each other’s jokes and liked hanging out. I learned how much I enjoyed sex, which quelled nagging doubts that I might be a lesbian. Several months before the wedding, I learned about bisexuality. During those months, my doubts grew but my logical brain informed me that marrying this man was the safest, wisest choice. I questioned my sexuality, my religion, my sanity. I went forward with the most logical path.
The latter part of the story may sound like something any naïve young woman might experience before her wedding. Indeed, everyone should question major life choices. In this case, my cumulative experiences as a woman on the autistic spectrum guided me into what appeared to be the right decision. At the time, the most logical path was to marry the only man remotely interested in spending his life with me. I wasn’t sure if it was true love or not, but I was sure I’d be safe with the nice, intelligent guy I was marrying. Now, at 40, I’m able to look back and understand why certain things happened. We also believe he’s on the spectrum. It’s not unusual for people on the spectrum to be attracted to others on the spectrum. This doesn’t always make for a great match, but we make it work.
It’s been 18 years since we married. We have three children, and two of them are on the spectrum. Since my daughter’s diagnosis and, later, my own, I’m able to look back at the innumerable ways autism has impacted my life. Sexuality isn’t something a person typically thinks about in relation to autism, but it is a significant part of our lives.
Autism and Sexuality
I now know that many people on the autism spectrum are part of the LGBTQI+ community. Although I didn’t get to experience that part of my sexuality, I know that I am bisexual. My rigid way of thinking didn’t allow room for the realization that I had a crush on the most popular girl at my high school, and on a girl I knew via the law enforcement exploration. My need to be a good Catholic as a teen made it difficult for me to accept that I could like men and women. Even after I left for a pagan religion, I didn’t know what to think. I was married, and I liked both sex and spending time with my husband. We had a baby, then two more. As I age, I’ve learned to be less rigid in my thinking. My sexual identity continues to evolve, and autism continues to be part of it. One constant is my sensory sensitivity.
Like most people on the spectrum, I have sensory issues at times. Since being with my husband, I’ve learned that no amount of love would make me give oral sex to anyone. My senses of smell and taste overpower me to this day. The upside is that my sense of touch makes it so almost any caress can get me in the mood. The downside is that small things distract me just when things start to feel good.
Overall, I’m relieved I can enjoy sex. For people with severe sensory disorders, intimacy can be difficult. I’m grateful that my sensory issues aren’t overwhelming in that sense. I’m also grateful that I get to enjoy my sexual identity, despite the challenges that come with it.
Autism is part of my sexual identity. And I’m okay with that.