Sex and Autism

Sex and Autism

Autism is a physical condition linked to abnormal biology and chemistry in the brain. The exact causes of autism are unknown, but irregularities in the brain structures such as the corpus callosum (facilitates communication between the two hemispheres of the brain), amygdala (affects emotion and social behavior), and cerebellum (involved with motor activity, balance, and coordination) have a significant association to the abnormalities and neurological problems associated with this disease. It is believed that these abnormalities occur during pre-natal development and that the imbalances in chemicals called neurotransmitters affect emotion, behavior, and brain activity. This may account for autistic behaviors like difficulties in pretend play, social interactions, and verbal and nonverbal communication. The number of children with autism is unclear, but the Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 68 children have been identified with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and that this statistic is on the rise.

(Above: An autistic child despite having motor impairment and communication difficulties, repetitively stacks cans; this is one type of behavior associated with autism.)

Most parents of autistic children suspect a cognitive disorder by the age of 18 months and seek professional support by the age of two. At this age, symptoms of communication impairment may vary from moderate to severe and can include: inability to start or maintain conversation, communication with repeated gestures rather than words, avoidance of eye contact, withdrawn nature, lack of empathy, and inability to make friends. Despite these difficulties, by the onset of puberty an intellectually impaired individual may seek a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship and sexual activity. However, autistic teens may have more difficulty than other teens in initiating appropriate contact. Young people with ASD may become sexually active with others at an age later than that of peers and may take longer to find a partner. Obvious signs of longing to engage sexually active arise when people with autism start noticing the bodies and physical features of others and begin engaging in masturbation. Oftentimes, this newly found sex drive may lead to inappropriate sexual behavior (i.e. masturbating in public) , resulting from a lack of knowledge about privacy and social behavioral norms.

People with ASD have the same biological functioning of others, but often lack the maturity and social skills to interact responsibly with a partner. Many desire long-term relationships, intimacy, and sexual contact but are often rejected, which affects his or her self-esteem and wellbeing. Meanwhile, those who are in long term relationships with an autistic partner often report either infrequent sexual activity due to communication or physical difficulties, or an overactive sex drive due to heighted sensory feelings during stimulation. Because of the circumstances, the intellectually disabled are commonly dissuaded from sexual activity or are misinformed about sexual education. People with autism have the right to form relationships and have sexual experience if they are capable of doing so. They also have the right to regulate their own birth control, and be protected from automatic sterilization. It is important that the intellectually impaired receive adequate education and resources to be able to undertake this part of life safely, legally, and in an appropriate manner. However, those with more severe mental impairment also have the right to be protected from sexual exploitation if the person lacks the capacity to give informed consent. No one can give consent on behalf of the disabled, thus, if a person is judged by a psychiatrist or parent to be incapable of giving consent, it is the caregiver’s responsibility to protect the person from sexual contact, which could be deemed sexual assault or statutory rape.  


(Above: Various behavioral symptoms of autism)

Luckily, any intellectually disabled persons are well within the realm of competence. It is important that families, schools and service providers treat the issues of puberty, sexuality and relationships with the upmost respect and sensitivity, as these attitudes can have a profound lifelong effect on sexuality. Young people with autism must learn that it is okay to be attracted to someone of the same sex, as orientation may be either fascinating or a very obscure concept. The intellectually disabled may ask a lot of questions regarding their sexuality, so it is essential that these individuals have the means to acquire information about safe and informed sexual choices. They need to have  ability to ask questions in a comfortable environment where they can be answered honestly.

The Arc, a national organization of and for the intellectually disabled people, asserts these people have a right not only to engage in sexual relationships, but also to marry and have children, If they have children they also have a right, to receive assistance raising them.


LeVay, Simon, Janice I. Baldwin, and John D. Baldwin. Discovering Human Sexuality. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, 2009. Print.

Last updated 10 March 2013.