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Autism and Sexuality - IMFAR 2012

John Elder Robison, a member of the Autism Speaks Scientific Advisory and Scientific Treatment Board, author, and advocate will be on tour promoting the softcover version of his acclaimed book Be Different: Adventures of a Free-Range Aspergian with Practical Advice for Aspergians, Misfits, Families & Teachers

This blog was originally posted here.


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

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.