Crip Sex Tips #2: Autism

Welcome again to Crip Sex Tips! Where we discuss sexuality and access negotiation for various disabilities from a first-hand knowledge perspective. (In future installments I’d like to write about sex & chronic pain, and sex & PTSD. And I will be negotiating to publish guest posts by writers who have personal experience with disabilities that I don’t.)

For this post I drew on my own autistic experiences and consulted autistic friends. (0 allistic input on autistic needs was solicited.)

If you’re autistic, or having sexytimes with someone who is, here are some things that may need adjustments/access arrangements in your sex life:

1. Sensory issues

This is definitely the biggest access consideration around ASD and sex. (For an excellent introduction to autistic sensory issues and access considerations, please check out this Autisticality blog post.) So I’m going to subdivide it into smaller categories.

a. Preparing your environment

Are you generally a low-input or high-input autistic? If you compare yourself to this handy chart, are you more like autistic person B or more like autistic person C? (If you’re like person A, then sensory issues may not be a significant concern for you.) Do you generally prefer very little stimulation, or a lot? And specifically, do you need your environment to be sensory-quiet or busy when having sex?

If your bodymind prefers/needs low input, some things you could consider:

— Having sex without music, when no one else is home, in a quiet room not facing a busy road, when noisy appliances aren’t on, etc.

— Adjusting the lights to something your brain can tolerate well. E.g., I like natural light best, and then warm-light floor lamps or wall fixtures: I do not handle fluorescents or ceiling fixtures that I’d be staring up at well at all. Your preferences may differ, but consider whether lighting makes a difference to your sensory wellness.

— Removing visual clutter from the room/space if needed. Choosing muted colours for sheets and other bedding, and/or for restraints, impact toys, etc.

— Making sure the environment has low scent input. Don’t use scented candles or incense. Remove ‘air fresheners’. Make sure the space hasn’t been painted recently, or had tobacco or marijuana smoke or sage or incense, or other strong lingering scents in it. Maybe turn on an air purifier (if it doesn’t interfere with your low-noise needs).

— Making sure the sheets and whatever else is on the bed (or wherever else you’re having sex) have texture you can tolerate. If you’re using not-your-bed, check the texture of the sheets ahead of time, or bring your own. People who want to get with you and who respect you, will want you to be comfortable! Also, check the texture of any sex aids you’ll be using, including any sex toys, restraints, impact toys, sensation toys, condoms, and lube.

High-input autistics could look into:

— Having music or a noise machine on.

— Putting the lights on optimal brightness (which is not necessarily the highest brightness); possibly using a lava lamp or colourful candles.

— Using scented candles or an essential oil diffuser (if scent is not an access barrier for any of the participants).

— A lot of texture in your sex toys.

— Kink experiences that up your stimulation levels: impact toys, sensation toys, rope with texture you like, etc.

— Probably other things I am not aware of, because I am usually a low-input autistic.

b. Preparing you and your partner(s)

Issues both low-input and high-input autistics could talk about ahead of time:

— General touch: what kind do you want or need; what kind must be avoided; what kind is on your maybe list. This is among the most important thing to discuss. Many autistics are unhappy with light, feathery touches, but do well with sustained deep pressure. Some of us really like to be restrained. Some want to be touched very little; some love petting and stroking (giving and/or receiving). Make sure to evaluate your own touch needs and communicate them — and/or, if you are partnering with an autistic, make sure to clearly ask them.

— Do you need everyone to take a shower right before sex, to decrease scents, tastes, and textures that don’t work for you? (E.g. I can’t handle skin I’m touching to be even slightly sticky/tacky or dirty when having sex. Plus am really scent-sensitive. Prior showers are a must.)

— If you can’t handle wet hair and don’t do well with hair dryers, but need clean, scentless skin, could you shower with a shower cap? Or, some time before sex to allow hair to dry?

— Do you need everyone to brush their teeth beforehand, for similar reasons? Do you have a preference or repulsion for particular toothpaste or mouthwash flavours?

— How loud or quiet do you need all of you to be to have a good time? Some of us need to make noise to self-regulate when feeling intense feelings. Some of us feel pain when noise levels are too loud, and would like everyone to be quietish.

— How do you feel about eye contact? Are you averse to it? Do you want to let your partner know in what not-eye-contact ways you communicate closeness? Do you need sporadic eye contact, but frequent is too much? Do you only look at folks in your peripheral vision? Do you want your partner(s) to match what you do, or are you unbothered by them looking at you, even all the time as long as you don’t have to make eye contact? Etc.

— What body movements and body interactions might you need for optimal ASD functioning? E.g., do you need to stim on your partner’s body? Do you need to flap or wriggle when excited? Do you need sustained hard pressure on some part of you (possibly: biting) when sensory input goes high? Etc.

— Do you need to wear scents? Do you need your partner(s) to/not to wear scents?

— Do you need clothing to be removed prior to getting into bed, or left on? Do you have strong feelings about the colours your partner(s) wear?

— (If you usually communicate with speech) Are you likely to become non-verbal, or have (new, or increased) problems with auditory processing, during sex? If yes, what would you like your partner(s) to do?

c. Sex activities

A discussion of what kind of sex your ASD is compatible with, deserves its own subcategory. Some things to consider:

— Some folks don’t do well with bodily effluvia, for texture, taste, or smell reasons. Having sex with barriers (condoms, gloves, dams) might help with that. If not, consider having sex in the shower, where the fluids get mingled with water and washed away.

— Some of us have intense hygiene concerns, though not necessarily texture opposition, about some sex acts.

E.g., if you are into anal penetration (with penises, sex toys, fingers or fists), but can’t handle the thought of dealing with/adequately protecting against the associated bacteria and ‘dirtyness’, some options are: having sex in the shower (use lube though!), covering part of or your entire bed with a waterproof sheet or large very thick towel (which you could wash right after), having sex outside (in a tent, or otherwise) on a tarp or sheet. And using condoms or gloves on the relevant body parts/toys, or washing them with antibacterial soap afterwards.

For rimming, you can use barriers, or the receiving person can wash their anus really thoroughly (some people even prep with enemas; if you do, health practitioners generally recommend against ones that use anything but water; they can be irritating and make you sick), and the giving person can gargle with antibacterial or antiseptic mouthwash right after. Also, the giving person can get the Hepatitis A vaccine, to lower their chances of accidental infection. These are free in Toronto from Public Health, provided you disclose to your health practitioner (this can be your family doctor, or the trusty Hassle-Free Clinic) that you have been involved in unprotected rimming, and plan to again.

For hand-in-vagina sex, you could agree that hands get washed immediately prior to penetration, to reduce the possibility of dirt entering the vagina. You could make similar agreements around penis-in-vagina (PinV) sex.

— Some folks have texture issues that make it difficult for them to give oral sex or touch some parts of genitalia. If this is your issue, see if using barriers (dams, condoms, gloves) makes a difference for you.

— Relatedly, some folks’ texture issues will mean they can’t/don’t want to kiss with mouths open or with tongues going into each other’s mouths. Good news: you don’t have to do this if you don’t want to. Closed-mouth kissing is fun too.

— Always, you can just opt out of activities you’re not feeling. Your body, your choice!  There are many ways folks have sex.  Don’t allow popular representations of sex to make you feel inadequate or like you’re doing it ‘wrong’.  If it works for you and for your partner(s), it’s the right way for you.  (If it works for you, but not your partners, I suggest finding more compatible partners.)

d. Coping with sensory overwhelm during sex

If you know your signs of sensory overwhelm really well, pay attention to them during sex, and consider letting your sex partner(s) know what they are, so they can help watch out for them.

When you start to feel overwhelmed, pause, evaluate, and adjust things if possible. If you persist in having sex in a situation that’s making you overwhelmed, you will just feel worse and worse.

If you don’t know your overwhelm signs, pay attention to anything that makes you feel not-good — and also pause, evaluate, and adjust. You don’t have to figure out why you’re feeling terrible, just notice that you are, and change things. If you don’t know what needs changing, trial and error are your friends! Also, consider drafting your partner(s) to help you brainstorm possible adjustments to your environments, your bodies, or what you are doing. Also see section (e).

If you have PTSD in addition to autism, you may find that you sometimes confuse your sensory overwhelm with your PTSD or trauma aftereffects. (This happens to me sometimes.) So if you find yourself feeling terrible during sex sometimes, and you tend to assume it’s a trigger, but doing trigger-related care doesn’t seem to help, ask yourself if decreasing sensory input might help.

For example, some of us will experience sensory overload if the sexual sensations we’re feeling are too intense, or happen to us too suddenly. If the latter, it can help tremendously to gradually build up your sexual turn-on, progressing from mildly turning-on experiences to moderately or highly stimulating ones, through a series of gradual steps. And if it’s that the sexual sensations are too intense — indirect stimulation (without or with only occasional ventures into direct stimulation, as needed) can be your new best friend. I find that having too much direct stimulation really overwhelms me, so I carefully titrate the addition of each experience of direct stimulation to my genitals. I can only handle so much before I burn out sensory-wise, and need to stop.

Also, some of us notice that different environments come with different abilities to tolerate sensory input. You may find that having sex in an environment where your sensory tolerance is higher goes much better, and you can have the orgasmy kinds of sex there better — and save the lower-input, lower-intensity kinds of sex for environments where you are more sensitive.

Then, some autistics can tolerate higher sensory input when steady pressure is applied to parts of our bodies. So you might find your partner gripping your thighs really tightly, or being held down by the length of their body, or being restrained in rope, really helpful as far as opening up your sensory tolerance (including tolerance of sexual sensations) for a limited time. For some autistics, biting/being bitten can fill the same need.

And some of us need pain (from biting, scratching, pinching, etc.), rather than just pressure, most of or the entire time we’re having sex, to help us successfully manage overwhelm. If that’s you, discuss the level of pain you need with your partner(s), and whether you are okay/happy/unhappy with getting marks on your body from these activities.

The steady pressure can also help bring you down if you are already feeling overwhelmed. In which case, pause what you are doing first, then ask for pressure.

e. More on what if you don’t know what you need

If you are new to knowing you’re autistic, and haven’t yet figured out which things cause sensory reactivity or overwhelm, try paying attention to times when you feel revulsion/shame/ick feelings, or anxiety/irritation/twitchy feelings, or depression/boredom/apathy feelings, or sudden draining fatigue. All of these can signal autistic sensory overwhelm or underwhelm. Try tracking when you feel these, and note if there is a frequent correlation between sensory input and these feelings. Also, even without enough tracking to spot a pattern, you can try adjusting your environment to see what makes a difference. If you experience a pretty quick feelings-change in response to an adjustment, this was probably a sensory issue. Make note of it for the future.

E.g., when subjected to dim ceiling fixture light, I pretty reliably feel depressed. (I feel mildly depressed/low-energy when exposed to all ceiling fixtures, as a sensory response. But it gets much worse when they produce dim light.) If the lighting is changed — ideally to a floor/table/wall lamp with sufficient but not superhigh wattage — I start to feel better immediately. It took me a while to track this and realise it was a sensory issue, but now that I know, I can better take care of me around this.

Revulsion/shame/ick feelings, if autism-related, generally signal overwhelm around texture, sexual stimulation, smell or taste. Adjusting to have less of whatever texture, smell, taste, or lowering direct sexual stimulation, can help.

Anxiety/irritation/twitchy feelings can signal overwhelm around touch and sounds and visual input, especially stuff that’s repetitious or unpredictable. (E.g. hearing a repeated, irregular loud thump often causes me to have twitchy feelings.) I suggest lowering noise levels and visual distractions (especially of the flashing/strobing variety) in the environment, or moving to an environment that blocks out a lot of sound from outside.  And if you are being touched just then, consider changing the kind of touch it is. Light, feathery touches can especially make autistics twitchy. For some of us, pressure can help take down our overwhelm levels (whether they stem from touch or other input). If that’s you, putting on a weighted blanket, or having a partner press on you or grip a part of your body for a while, might help.

Depression/boredom/apathy feelings can be about underwhelm/underload — your sensory input being lower, or of a different kind, than needed. Stimming: including rubbing or drumming on parts of our bodies, playing with fidgets, snapping fingers, petting your partner or squeezing a stim toy, chewing on something (there are now multiple sources that sell ‘chewellery’, intended for this very purpose), hopping, flapping, echolalia (repeating words or syllables); brighter lights (but usually not fluorescents) or colourful lighting patterns (e.g. from lava lamps); and listening to music — are some of the ways we can up our input to feel better.

Sudden fatigue can also be an indicator of overwhelm, especially global overwhelm. Try decreasing all the input in your environment that you can control, and see what helps. For me, changing into autistically comfortable clothes (no tags!; nice, non-irritating texture, no synthetic fabrics; neckline that’s not too tight; etc.), parking myself on my comfortable couch, ideally turning off all noise sources, ceasing all interactions (verbal and written) for a time, making sure lights are not ceiling-based and in the happy medium between too dim & overbright, and making sure I hydrate and have access to tasty, vitaminey food, are generally what helps when I reach ‘sudden draining fatigue’. Obviously, if you have a chronic fatigue condition (which I also do), it can sometimes be challenging to figure out what caused your present tiredness. I generally find that following the protocol above helps with both illness- and autism-caused fatigue.

2. Communication

a. Beforehand

If you anticipate that your autistic needs are going to need consideration during sex (for most, though not all, autistics, they are), make space for you and your partner(s) to communicate about them ahead of time. Talk about what you’ll need from them, the environment, and how to assist you if something goes wrong. Be as direct as possible. Explain why you need some things, if that’s comfortable for you; allistics often remember better and take needs more seriously if they can at least somewhat understand them.

Also, if your communication abilities are variable, you might want to explain this ahead of time, and tell your partner what to do.

If you are the partner of an autistic, and want to learn how to have the best sexytimes possible with them — ask them if they’d be willing to talk about this (don’t assume! consent matters) and set aside some quiet private time to talk. Then invite them to tell you what they think you need to know, or ask open-ended questions. Don’t get distracted into asking about All The Autism Things; you risk making them feel like a zoo exhibit. Be prepared for your autistic partner to be really blunt and direct about their needs. If they sound loud or emphatic, don’t assume they are angry. If they aren’t showing emotions about what they’re explaining, don’t assume they don’t have any; they are likely hyperfocusing on the task of educating you, and so compartmentalising their feelings.

b. During

Communicate as best you can. There is no particular protocol for this; the purpose of communication is to be understood. If you are understood, then you communicated successfully.

If your communication abilities vary in response to sensory/input/feelings overwhelm, you probably already have a strategy for times when, e.g. you go non-verbal or lose some of your words or if you experience significant auditory processing problems. Ideally, speak with your partner(s) about this ahead of time, so they know how to respond and keep communicating with you if your mode of communication needs to change in mid-date.

If you don’t already have an alternate communication strategy for going non-verbal, here are some ideas: if you normally use speech, try learning some simple sign language with your partner(s) for times when you go non-verbal. You can also use writing (on paper) or typing (on a laptop, phone, etc.). If you’re losing some words but can still speak, maybe your partner could ask clarifying questions, or yes/no questions.

If you usually communicate via sign language or typing or speech synthesiser: when you find yourself too overwhelmed to communicate via these modes, think: simpler. Can you use *some* simple signs? Can you answer yes or no questions with signs or tapping? What do you need in order to regain your ability to communicate in your usual manner?

As always, if you’re losing your ability to communicate because of overwhelm, pause and assess what needs to change.

Though of course you might be choosing to deliberately explore being overwhelmed (say, in a kink scenario), and that’s totally cool. In which case, do plan for and discuss:

i) how can your partner(s) know or guess that what’s happening might too much, and so know to check in with you;

ii) how will you communicate when overwhelmed if overwhelm shuts down some of your communication abilities;

iii) what are clear signs that your partner(s) should stop the scene, even if you are not able to say that it’s too much.

If you find that your auditory processing can suffer when you’re feeling intense things — and so, possibly during sex — what do you usually do?  Ask folks to write/type stuff to you, use ASL or home-made hand signs, speak slowly, use simple words, check with you frequently about your comprehension?  If you don’t yet have ‘usual’ coping skills for this issue — try any of the above that sound good to you, or brainstorm with your partners about their ideas.  Often it can be quite useful to brainstorm about communication solutions with folks who want to communicate with you!

c. Some general communication remarks for allistic partners

Autistics are often pretty good at direct communication. We are likely to say what we mean, speak bluntly, clearly ask for what we need or want. In the absence of information to the contrary, please believe that we are telling the literal truth, and that there aren’t hidden ‘polite’ meanings to our statements.

Autistics are sometimes not good at reading tone of voice, emotion, or facial expressions — and sometimes also not good at using ‘appropriate’ tone, volume, emotional expression, or facial arrangements to convey our meanings. Keep this in mind when interacting with us. When confused about what your partner means — if e.g. they are speaking in a monotone, or loudly, or being emphatic, or have a flat or exaggerated facial expression, and this doesn’t seem to match the words they’re saying — don’t guess or assume; check with them what they mean. They are likely to tell you.

In return, please also do your best to communicate clearly and directly, and be honest. If you use ‘nuanced polite speech’ (where folks are expected to gather your actual meaning from interpreting small cues in light of politeness norms), implication, or circumlocution, don’t be surprised if you are not understood. If an autistic asks you what you meant, please explain as best you can. Don’t assume they are being ‘difficult’ or deliberately obtuse. In general we do not play verbal games.

Concluding remarks:

For sexytimes that are fun for all involved, ideally everyone would:
a) evaluate their wants, needs, and limitations,
b) communicate about those clearly,
c) negotiate where necessary around clashing needs or access adjustments.

This is also hugely/particularly important when those sexytimes involve autistics. Our threshold for tolerating basic needs not being met can be lower than for allistics.

Please communicate, practice self-care, and have fun!

If you are autistic, and would like to contribute corrections or addenda, based on your experience, to what I’ve said here, please write me with those? I can edit this post to add new information, with accreditation or without, as you choose.

Updated 23 VIII 2017, mostly for clarity, but also to add small points about pain and about kissing; 29 VIII 2017, to improve reading flow, and to add a point about auditory processing.

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