Saturday, May 19, 2012

Autism and Sexuality - IMFAR 2012



Now that IMFAR has wound down and I have a moment to gather my thoughts I’d like to describe a few of the less-noticed findings from this year’s conference.

One concerned autism and sexuality.  I found that quite interesting because it’s a topic I had not seen at IMFAR before, and it raised interesting and probably controversial new questions.  The key finding:  Several studies reported a marked increase in the rate of LGBT identity as compared to the NT population.

In some studies identity was classified by self-report, while other studies scored identity based on responses to a standardized questionnaire.  Interestingly, the results seemed similar between the two methods.

When I talked to one of the researchers, I was struck by her description of what she called “flexibility.”  Others might call that bisexuality but she seemed to see it as different from bisexuality in the NT community.  She described the one as a choice while the other was more “no preference.”  She further suggested that our diminished theory of mind might leave us both uncertain and vulnerable to sexual exploitation. 

I don’t know if theory of mind is the answer but the “exploitation” certainly hit home for me, as I recalled all the female spectrumites who have told me awful stories from their own lives.  At the same time, I consider the males, who mostly talk of dating failure.

When I have written about that issue in the past, I suggested that females are the principal choosers in our society, so a male who acts strange (due to autism or anything else) does not get chosen and has a zero result.  But a female whose choosing instinct is weakened by autism runs the risk of choosing wrong which can lead to a very bad outcome.

I know it’s not totally cut and dried, and both parties have to pick each other, but the evidence I’ve seen on college campuses where I’ve spoken certainly corroborates that.  Yet none of the observations from my own life have suggested that LGBT identity is more common among the AS population, nor have I ever sensed we are “flexible” in that regard.

Of course, that may simply be because I am not very perceptive in that area, either because I am autistic or for some other reason.  The data presented described some hundreds of people; enough to have a meaningful sample and the consistency of that particular finding between the studies leads me to think it’s probably valid.  But why?

Why do we autistics have such a different distribution of expressed sexual preferences?  That is the question researchers asked, and several possible answers were posited:
1 – We might have more “masculinized brains,” whatever that means.  I quote those words from one of the summaries.  I know Simon Baron Cohen has advanced the idea before but I’d not heard it in the context of sexual identity.
2 – Since our ability to read other people are limited, we may be freer to think independently.  So freed we might make choices that NTs would be inhibited from making.
3- Our sexual identify might be inherently more flexible for as-yet unknown reasons related to our autistic differences.
4- Our penchant for directness may cause us to be more truthful in surveys of this type; in that case we may report truer percentages while the NT group had many respondents who hid their true feelings.  The difference may not be great at all; we just answer differently.

While the reasons remain an open question, our willingness to embrace LGBT choices seems undisputed.  All the studies agreed on that.  I’ll be very curious to see where this leads.

When I look at my own family, my brother has always been gay, and I have always been straight.  I am not aware of any “lifestyle choice” either of us made to be the way we are.  I’m not sure if or why being autistic would influence that; it’s a curious finding for sure. 

One final point from this research:  A significant fraction of the AS population chooses asexuality, a choice that’s not really found in the NT population.  I’ve long known AS people who felt that way but until now I have never wondered why, or what it may mean.

Here are a few of the questions I had, when it comes to these studies:

If we believe there really are more LGBT autistics - What sort of changes might be needed in our social skills training to optimize or be more inclusive for a LGBT audience? 

If indeed we are more vulnerable to sexual exploitation how might we protect young people from that outcome?  To answer, we’d have to know how it comes about.

Growing up LGBT presents any kid with additional complications. When we combine that with the knowledge that autistic kids are already very much at-risk for bullying, it paints a disturbing picture.  What should or could we do to help?

If we believe autistics are simply more truthful about disclosing their identifies in surveys, does that directness subject us to ridicule and harassment, and if so, what could we do about it?

It’s an interesting question and I’ll be curious to see what your thoughts are . . .

John Elder Robison
Writing from IMFAR 2012
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

23 comments:

Asperger's Mom said...

I think the data is skewed due to the well documented fact that individuals on the spectrum are more likely to be honest about personal issues when asked to discuss them. While on the other hand, the "NT" is more likely to falsify his or her answer to fit what he or she perceives to be societal expectations and therefore reporting false when the accurate answer would be true.Therefore creating a skewed result of NT ratio.

John Elder Robison said...

AS Mom, I mentioned that possibility too. But even that has implications. I think this is an area we should know more about

Thanks for writing in

Moonheart said...

Finally.

I'm grateful to see someone say what I've been wondering for quite a while.

Of course, people on the spectrum can be gay. I see lots and lots of issues with sexuality in my personal research.

My Aspie son (7) knows no bounderies, is sweet as can be, prefers girls to boys' company, and recently told me he wishes he was a girl. Though I won't go too deeply into it, his father is on the spectrum .. gay-on-demand-boisterous-alcohol-slinging-slightly sociopathic father, my ex, who switches between genders as he needs physical comfort.

I guess I should try to make this shorter so, I have reason to believe a high co-morbidity on the ASD spectrum with all those disorders that make simple life hard to come by. Depression, anxiety,gender issues, sexuality, pychopathy.

Please don't kick me folks, while you're educating me.

I'll be looking forward to read everyone's answers to your questions. Thanks for putting it out there, John.

Annette said...

Wouldn't people with Autism be reluctant or not want to talk about sexuality as some would find this difficult to do.
My Teenage son will not talk about his sexuality openly he tells me it's no ones business but his. Interesting findings though!!

MissMM said...

I know that you are way too busy to spend much time on Wrong Planet but this type of thing, not the LGBT (I think that's about being more honest than the general population, actually), the men or women, who is lonely thing, comes up often.

As you said it's not cut and dry. As a woman I'm expected to lie (this is called flirting). I am fairly attractive but I do not get to choose men. I come on too strong, I show interest, I'm too loud, these are all things that could be off putting when done by either sex. I know that there are aspies of both sexes in happy relationships and that's great for them. The fact is though that not all of us have our pick. This is a common male misconception.

I often feel as though if I were a man and could go in and come on strong to a woman some women would actually go for that. It's not really the same in the opposite situation (in my experience, almost 30).

There is no point in a woman sleeping with a man that she is not at all attracted to (the ones who usually hit on me because they think I'm playing hard to get) because we don't orgasm the same as men.

This means that I've had much less sexual experience than someone with my drive actually needs and it sucks, plainly, it sucks, just like for a guy, it sucks.

f1ymetothemoon said...

Funny you should bring this up. I don't know any Aspies (yet, and I know a few) who are LGBT, and I don't know any LGBTs (yet, and I know more than a few) who are Aspies.

I've come to the conclusion that my Aspie husband is asexual, after 14 years of struggling for his physical affection in our marriage. He's definitely not gay. He just seems to have little interest in sex outside of fantasies. We've recently decided that what we are is best friends, coparents, roommates, and that we're both okay with the prospect of an open marriage (as not to move the kids around, both of whom are ASD and finally in the right schools and classes). So who do I, a lifelong, NT, straight woman, develop a huge crush on? A transgendered (M to F) woman. I have to wonder if this is a result of being fed up with sexual and emotional neglect, and feeling I might get more affection from a woman? The transgendered woman I'm attracted to still has some male, or tomboyish, qualities. I don't know if this makes me bisexual, but I feel strongly that I need a partner with more romantic qualities, and since this change feels extreme to me, I wonder if being with an asexual Aspie for so long sort of pushed me to this awkward place.

A funny side story: My Aspie son, 12, was riding home from school one day with his dad when they had to stop for dozens of teenage girls running across the street for their cross-country class. My husband asked my son if he thought any of the girls were cute. He said, "Yeah, all of them." So we know which direction he's headed in.

Woodelle said...

I will hold anyone's hand and I'm called a lesbian for it. I am straight, don't plan on being anything but. This really struck me though. I love my friends xD

indigowombat said...

I add my voice to those who strongly suspect that the explanation for the data is your choice #4: Autistics self-report with more honesty. They may also be more honest with themselves about such issues. My data: heterosexual and polyamorous, vocal supporter of LGBT rights.

Asperger's Mom said...

This is indeed an interesting issue. When talking about sexuality I think we need to remember that the sensory system is integrated into an individuals sexual desires and/or needs. Sensory seeking or avoiding can mask or dictate how an individual approaches his or her sexuality, and/or is labeled by themselves or others. For example, I have always thought the defining feature to whether a person fits the criteria for either hetero, homo, or bi-sexual to be associated to what sex (male, female, or both) arouses sexual desires in the individual. An individual who is wired to seek sexual stimulation may label themselves prematurely due to sexual contact with a male or female derived out of need to satisfy the sensory seeking desires. I personally think the mass-hysteria to deny self gratification of sexual stimulation forces individuals to seek out whoever is available, be it male or female. Without the ability to examine the grey areas between homo, hetero, or bi-sexuality an individual on the spectrum may try to make themselves fit into one of the black or white definitions provided by society. Very interesting topic indeed.

jaynn said...

MissMM, you really only have a choice if you're conventionally desirable (I'd normally say attractive, but as you mentioned other factors come into play as well). Like you, I've never had much of a choice when it comes to guys, which was really depressing as a teenage girl, despite not actually wanting male attention. (FTR, I used to identify as bi, but I've only ever been in relationships with men--since I got married, the question has kind of become moot)

Women tend to be placed as gatekeepers rather than choosers--we don't get to choose who might be interested in us, just whether or not we allow those guys who do show interest to be part of our romantic lives. Guys get to choose more than women, per conventional dynamics, women only get to 'choose' from the men who show interest.

Cade said...

For starters, we need to drop this BS about autism being the result of a masculinized brain. There is nothing, nothing, nothing at all to suggest the differences in an autistic brain (or ANY brain) have anything to do with gender or gender identity. Hormones? Maybe, but hormones are not gender. And studying hormones in autistic persons and how that might affect our cognition would require actual, hard scientific testing, which has not be done.

This idea of a masculinized brain is indeed advanced, regrettably, by scientists, but this is not a scientific finding based in reliable, empirical evidence. It is a subjective value judgement based in heteronormative conventions that assign certain cognitive traits to gender roles, and often, as is painfully obvious with male bias surrounding autism, with a heavy and arbitrary bias toward assigning more socially advantageous or preferred traits to masculinity, when it manifest in certain ways.

Yes, I have a highly systematizing brain. But I'm female. I just happen to systematize as good if not better than men who are also good systematizers. It's not about my brain acting in a masculine way, just in a systematizing way. Besides, as I often like to point out, traditional jobs for women almost without exception require a very high degree of systematized thinking--teaching, nursing, clerical work, child-rearing (especially if there's more than one child to care for), running a household, etc. All of these require prioritizing information and actions in a relative hierarchy based in efficiency and efficacy, i.e. systematization. Even many traditional hobbies for women require a lot of systematic thinking. My mother's hand-made quilts are a board and detailed testimony to that fact. But these jobs and tasks are rarely appreciated as the result of highly focused, highly systematized thinking, because it's "women's work" and not "men's work." Again, subjective value judgements at work. Not the kind of thing I want an understanding of my autism based upon.

As for my sexual orientation and gender identity as an autstic person, I can ony speak for myself. I am female and hetero, and at 40 years of age, I can say quite solidly so. But all the same, I do not fit the heteronormative ideal for a hetero woman, and I have a very long history of conflicts with society over my gender and identity to show show for that, including being misdx'd as a teen with "gender confusion" and enduring institutional abuse to make me act more "lady-like". What they were trying to traumatize out me was, in fact, my autism and how that shapes my femininity in a way that is quite distinct from heteronormativity.

My experience of being a hetero woman is far too fluid and much broader and richer than the heteronormative ideal that I was expected to conform to as a teen and abused for when I refused. Being a hetero woman for me is the experience of who I am, not about what I am not or what I supposedly shouldn't be (i.e male, gay, bi, trans. etc).

And since it is my own experience, I'm the one who should get to define what being a hetero woman is. Whatever I am, whatever I do, however I act, however I think, I do it as a hetero woman. And if I do something *someone else* thinks is male, gay, trans, whatever, it just means THEIR understanding of heterosexuality and womanhood is too narrow and static.

Sorry for the long comment (just being true to my Aspergian nature).

Laura Gilmour said...

It is interesting the amount of discussion that this poster has recieved via the blogging community. I was actually first author on the poster "sexuality in a community based sample of adults with autism spectrum disorder." I am also an aspie myself. If you have any questions, drop me an email through my blog, and I will also provide you with my mentor's email address.

MissMM said...

jaynn,
Good points.

abnor said...

This would be an excellent thing to study with samples from Pride Conferences and Parades; do a bunch of surveys with explicitly autistic questions (without stating that the person surveyed could be autistic) and scramble the LGBTQ questions in among with it to see if you get some correlation.

Pro said...

As I am flexible too, this post caught my eyes; also because I wondered about my sexuality.

I fall for women as well as men; though most of my crushes and obsessions were on women. The couple of times I fell for men was when I worked intensively together with them. So, after a while of being together I would develop feelings, irrespective of gender.

Maybe it also has to do with my lack of understanding of love. I have not really an idea what love actually means. If someone gives me attention for a long time, I would be affected.

See my blog posts on this: http://aspiprof.blogspot.com/

Pro said...

In short,I don't think the 4 reasons mentioned in the original blog-post are fully descriptive.

Sullivan said...

Sexuality in autism and intellectually disabled populations is a subject I've tried to follow for the past few years.

There are papers on transgenderism in the autistic population. A few in the past couple of years. Some of these stem from the "extreme male brain" groups.

Another aspect of the sexuality question that I think needs more attention is sexuality among intellectually disabled (autistic and non-autistic) people.

Moonheart--it is going to be very difficult to predict at this point where things are going for your son. But puberty can be traumatic for a transgender person. It is worth looking into in advance.

--Matt Carey

Lucas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
silverfin said...

[First time here, so if I say anything inappropriate, sorry and please let me know.]

The data described in the article does not surprise me at all, as my contact with AS and LGBTAQ friends and acquaintances had led me to the same informal conclusion - that people further along the AS than average (i.e. including subthreshold) are proportionally more likely to identify as non-heterosexual. However, I'd go further and say bi and A are even more over-represented than gay.

While I agree with previous posters that AS individuals are less likely to lie about their non-standard sexualities, I doubt very much if this is the only reason. It addresses the Identity aspect of sexuality but not the Attraction or Behaviour aspects.

Heteronormativity permeates most (all?) cultures and affects our development, including creating unconscious irrational beliefs and biases, many of which involve shared assumptions about 'right' and 'wrong' ways for members of the community to think and behave. I suggest that those with strongly systemising brains are less likely to take on board these biases if they do not seem logical. Put simply, they/we are less likely to follow the herd and do something just because it's the expected norm.

I believe that while many more people have same-sex attractions than admit it to others, that there are many more who do not even admit it to themselves. Everyone expects them to find opposite sex partner(s), so they do, without ever needing to acknowledge that they might have been equally happy with a same-sex partner. Hence bisexuality under-represented. (For that matter, currently there is considerable peer pressure to 'make your mind up' - ugh! - and identify oneself as either straight or gay, but definitely not somewhere in between.)

Personally, I am frequently confused and exasperated by (NT) people's bizarre and illogical assumptions and questions about my sexuality. They usually end with: Me "Why would I do/think that? It makes no sense." Them "Because that's what most people do/think." Me "Why would I care what most people do/think?"

Hope that makes some sense!

silverfin said...

[First time here, so if I say anything inappropriate, sorry and please let me know.]

The data described in the article does not surprise me at all, as my contact with AS and LGBTAQ friends and acquaintances had led me to the same informal conclusion - that people further along the AS than average (i.e. including subthreshold) are proportionally more likely to identify as non-heterosexual. However, I'd go further and say bi and A are even more over-represented than gay.

While I agree with previous posters that AS individuals are less likely to lie about their non-standard sexualities, I doubt very much if this is the only reason. It addresses the Identity aspect of sexuality but not the Attraction or Behaviour aspects.

Heteronormativity permeates most (all?) cultures and affects our development, including creating unconscious irrational beliefs and biases, many of which involve shared assumptions about 'right' and 'wrong' ways for members of the community to think and behave. I suggest that those with strongly systemising brains are less likely to take on board these biases if they do not seem logical. Put simply, they/we are less likely to follow the herd and do something just because it's the expected norm.

I believe that while many more people have same-sex attractions than admit it to others, that there are many more who do not even admit it to themselves. Everyone expects them to find opposite sex partner(s), so they do, without ever needing to acknowledge that they might have been equally happy with a same-sex partner. Hence bisexuality under-represented. (For that matter, currently there is considerable peer pressure to 'make your mind up' - ugh! - and identify oneself as either straight or gay, but definitely not somewhere in between.)

Personally, I am frequently confused and exasperated by (NT) people's bizarre and illogical assumptions and questions about my sexuality. They usually end with: Me "Why would I do/think that? It makes no sense." Them "Because that's what most people do/think." Me "Why would I care what most people do/think?"

Hope that makes some sense!

Evan said...

"Our penchant for directness may cause us to be more truthful in surveys of this type"

Funny, I was describing this article to my wife and she said almost the exact same thing immediately.

silverfin said...

Apols for double post above - browser glitch.

Also -
The original article quotes a person who says bisexuality is 'a choice'. Could someone explain in what way this orientation is any more a choice than hetero-, homo- or asexuality? In any of the above you're (un)attracted to the people you're (un)attracted to - the choice is in what ways you express your sexuality through behaviour and identification.

Red Haircrow said...

I am an intergender person myself, and consider myself a two spirit in the tradition of my people (I'm American Indian) but I comfortably live as a gay male most of the time, though my attractions on all levels remains fluid. Therefore, I never presented any gender assigned lifestyles to my child, who is now almost fifteen years old.

Maybe because of our freedom of lifestyle, I only learned later than my son had Asperger's Syndrome, and it explained so many things about him. Things finally made much more sense in how he did things, and what he understood more easily, etc. I'd always just let him go at his own pace, so we never had any problems at home, but the older he got he had more problems in school. More specifically, he began to have bullying problems because of his appearance, which is basically androgynous like my own, and his feelings of bisexuality. That's a "definition" and "term" but its more about: he liked and was attracted to whoever it was, gender didn't and doesn't matter. He tends more towards other males now, and I am not sure whether it's because it was mostly girls who bullied him and he's decided, for the moment, he doesn't like any of them.

Because we had so many problems with doctors and therapists not understanding his unique difficulties or even recognizing his Asperger's, I returned to university and now nearing my degree in Psychology and close to deciding which specialized field I will choose. I have of course examined brain studies, personality adaptations and other theories, and tend to ascribe to the "unknown reasons" idea, but in the end I think that is rather immaterial, or irrelevant. What is more relevant in the immediate is helping other be accepting of the inherent differences and some challenges those with the range of autism individual's might have, which simply include sexuality. "Just let it be", in other words. That is somewhat cultural, in that many of us accept there are mysteries that we might never know exact answers to, but we don't need any exact answers to be happy or happy enough in the situations of our lives.

Specifically on protecting from exploitation, like anything else when explaining to a child or young person with Asperger's, we have to be direct and clear in our explanations and not shy away from those aspects. I am not suggesting being explicit, but rather being age appropriate, so they can clearly comprehend in their own way and terms how to avoid or respond to certain situations. As far as bullying goes, my son has an absolutely horrendous time with it, because he didn't understand sarcasm, took people at their word, and then got badly tricked or beaten up. It is not advertisement but just to explain it, but he and I wrote the experiences together to try to help others to recognize and get through the pain http://redhaircrow.com/2012/01/26/bulliedgayteen/

I think in many societies being more direct and honest can you subject to ridicule and harassment, because 1st) some people don't realize you are being honest and direct, not just ironic or sarcastic yourself, 2nd) too many people take the opportunity to try to belittle someone else for their perceived faults. We are American Indians, and we are quite comfortable among our people, because for the most part you don't get ridicule or censure of some kind for being different, but in some societies of the US, we do not feel able to live. We had ties to Germany and Europe, and we also feel comfortable there because again, there is less general ridicule simply for being different than what is considered "normal."