Asexuality on the Autism Spectrum: A Personal Perspective
In 1995, Thinking in Pictures, a bestselling book written by Temple Grandin, one of the world’s first self-advocates with autism, was published. In the chapter “Dating Data,” Grandin wrote about her decision to choose celibacy in adulthood. She cited her social deficits, her struggles in social relationships, her absolute lack of interest and desire to pursue a romantic relationship. She compared her social struggles to the social mistakes that the character “Data” from Star Trek made in his failed attempts to be romantic. She has continued to write about her decision to remain celibate in many future articles and books.
Grandin has the right to identify herself any way that she chooses, and people have the responsibility to respect how she identifies herself. However, since Grandin was one of the first openly autistic adults to lecture about autism (today, some consider her to be the most famous person with autism in the world), the general public had a tendency, when Grandin started writing and lecturing on autism, to assume that whatever Grandin wrote to describe her autism applied, for the most part, to everyone with autism.
Although one cannot put the blame solely on Grandin’s writings for stereotyping people with autism as asexual, many people assume that people with autism, by definition, are asexual, prefer to be celibate, and lack an interest in romantic relationships. Countless studies and stories from other self-advocates, however, have shown this to be false. Jerry and Mary Newport, a married couple with autism, in their book Autism, Asperger’s and Sexuality: Puberty and Beyond, have described their own experiences as individuals with autism in a romantic relationship. In addition, self-advocate with autism Lindsey Nebeker, in her blog Naked Brain Ink, has shared her experiences about romantic relationships, and describes how many individuals with autism have many romantic and sexual feelings.
Their stories demonstrate that many people with autism are not asexual—rather, they can have just as much interest in romantic relationships as their non-autistic counterparts. And as a self-advocate who travels across the country, I have met and made friends with people with autism of all sexual orientations.
Interestingly, although Grandin’s writings fueled many stereotypes about people with autism being “asexual,” Grandin herself rarely uses the term “asexual” in her writings about the subject. Rather, she describes herself as “lacking an interest in romantic relationships” and “choosing celibacy.” Although Grandin herself uses those descriptions interchangeably to describe herself, many asexuals do not see “asexual” and “celibate” as similar things—rather, they perceive the two as very different things. For example, in 2011, the Asexuality Archive blog wrote a piece demonstrating why this is, and defined an “asexual” person as someone who does not experience sexual attraction, while a “celibate” person is someone who chooses not to have sex, regardless of their sexual orientation.
Although I personally believe it is wrong to assume and stereotype individuals with autism as being asexual, it is also a mistake to forget that some people with autism do identify as asexual. I personally identify as sexual. I have identified as an asexual since the age of 18, when I learned about the term from a non-romantic female friend. However, I have never experienced any interest in romantic relationships in my life. I don’t remember ever wanting to date or desiring a girlfriend, even though as a child, I lacked the ability to describe or understand why I didn’t feel this way.
In this essay, rather than promote stereotypes about asexuality and autism, I plan to share my personal experiences as an asexual with autism. I will describe my journey towards identifying as asexual, the struggles I faced to get to that journey, as well as the struggles I face as an asexual male with autism. It is my hope that by sharing my story and my beliefs regarding asexuality and autism, I can share awareness about the realities of being asexual with autism. Many of these realities differ from the stereotypical “autistic asexual.”
Asexual individuals are sometimes referred to as Aces. I personally prefer this term, since I consider it to be more “child-friendly.” Although I don’t have children and don’t plan to have children, I enjoy working with children, work with children as a part of my autism advocacy, and prefer using more “child-friendly” terms to describe my sexuality (even though I have no problem using more graphic terms in front of adults when no children are present).
How do I define being an Ace, or an asexual individual? An asexual person is a person that experiences no sexual attraction towards anyone, regardless of their gender. Ace also was a blanket term to define people who experienced no romantic attraction as well, until it was realized that many people who identified as Ace still experienced romantic attraction even if was not sexual attraction. Today, individuals who experience no romantic attraction are called aromantic, or Aro, and some people are aromantic and asexual. I consider myself both, as I have never felt romantic or sexual feelings towards anyone and have never dated. I have never felt an interest in dating, and the idea of dating terrifies me.
This lack of interest has shaped much of my life, and has equally helped me and caused me many struggles in my life. Inklings that I did not share the same feelings as “straight” individuals began when I was eleven years old, in the fifth grade. I noticed the negative judgment my teacher gave to me when he asked me to write a paper about my future and I wrote that I never wanted to marry or have children, while he praised students for saying that they wanted to marry and/or have children. My desire to never marry or have children persists to this day.
In addition, I developed a close friendship with a girl in my class who was physically handicapped. Despite enjoying each other’s company and being quite comfortable opening up to one another, we never felt any romantic feelings towards each other. The idea disgusted us. Interestingly, she too came out as asexual around the same age that I did.
Other confusion emerged in the fifth grade. I was told that boys were supposed to have crushes on girls and be interested in them. Yet I never felt that interest. Rather, I noticed that I got along better with girls as friends, and that the girl I was friends with was a much more loyal friend than the boys I was friends with who all eventually exploited and took advantage of me (and I eventually ended all contact with). However, since I wasn’t feeling this interest, I felt that I was weird and crazy, and that to be a normal boy, I “had” to have “crushes” on girls. I therefore feigned crushes on several girls and pretended I had crushes on two girls in school, when I reality, I didn’t feel anything towards them except a desire to be their friend, believing I had to feign those crushes in order to “act” normal.
Meanwhile, although I had developed friendships with a group of boys in the fifth grade, I look back and realize that since childhood, my best friends were, and have always been, female. I always felt like I could relate better to girls. I now know that this is because they never exerted any “pressures” for me to be straight, and the girls I became friends with were my friends also viewed me as “safe” because of my asexuality. A contrast has also emerged in my life—females I have met who do not know or understand the realities of being an asexual male have despised me for having mostly female friends, viewing my “asexuality” as impossible, or a deceptive lie used as a front to abuse the females I am friends with. To this day I work hard to stay away from these individuals.
As fifth grade ended and I left public school to become homeschooled, this confusion worsened. I came to the conclusion that I was gay. Since girls didn’t interest me, and every male I knew that didn’t like girls liked other males, that meant I had to be gay. I played along with this stereotype. I gave deep bear hugs to a male friend with autism, which I enjoyed. This made me think that I really was gay, even though in reality, my enjoyment of the hugs was not because I was gay, but because of my autism. Like many other people with autism, I have always enjoyed “deep pressure” hugs, and this had nothing to do with my sexuality. The boy I hugged was nonverbal and very low-functioning, and didn’t see my hugs as sexual either. However, since I felt that this “proved” my sexuality, as the years passed, I continued to “act gay” since I felt that’s what I was. I started cross dressing in private and tried on girls’ clothes when I became a teenager.
Eventually, however, I realized that I was just doing the same thing I had done as a pre-teen. I was merely “pretending” to be gay, just as I had previously “pretended” to be straight. But then, if I wasn’t straight or gay, what was I? I concluded that I must be bisexual. People who weren’t straight or gay that I knew were bisexual. Plus, although I had no sexual or romantic attraction towards anyone, I did feel the same way towards other boys and girls. And bisexuals were interested in both boys and girls—thus, they felt the same way. I concluded, therefore that I was bisexual. Fueling this belief was my mother’s belief she shared to me that “all boys went through a phase of being bisexual before they become straight.”
While this questioning was occurring, many men in my extended and immediate family, when I became an adolescent, started to push heterosexual norms on me. Several of my uncles started to entertain me with sexist “women jokes” that objectified women. Another uncle of mine forced me to watch a porn film when I was 16, believing he’d make me a “real man” by doing so. During my early adolescent years, these men engaged me in their “fantasy” of what they felt was “real manhood”—which revolved around objectifying and abusing women. These men, including my father, would scream at me for not “checking out” girls in public places, especially the swimming pool, sometimes in public.
And I worked hard to fight them. I refused to play along with their games as long as I could. I had already grown up in the shadow of abusive men—my father was very verbally abusive to my mother in front of me, and these uncles were very nasty to the women in their lives. I witnessed my father use horrific insulting words to describe my mother growing up, words I will not share here out of respect for her.
I did not realize at the time that they were actually indirectly subjecting me to abuse, and it wasn’t until a few months before my 17th birthday, when I witnessed my father inflict exceptional emotional and verbal abuse towards one of my younger sisters, that I understood the truth. These men were not really introducing me to manhood, they were setting me up to become an abuser, and were abusing me. I stood up to my father after his abuse ended towards my sister, and told him I was no longer playing along with his petty games to turn me into a man. When I turned 18, I stood up to my uncles, and told them to stop as well. They finally admitted to the error of their ways in my 20s, and we reconciled.
One other fantasy that was instilled in me was the idea that somehow, the only relationship I could have with a girl was finding a girlfriend. During this time, I developed many non-romantic, but emotionally close friendships with several girls, thinking that they were my girlfriends, but in reality, we were just friends. Some of them worked out, some of them didn’t. One of those friends eventually became my closest friend, and we still are friends to this day, 10 years after we met. At the same time, my lack of interest in girls made it difficult to relate to my male peers or developing friendships with other teenage boys.
2006 was one of my most difficult years. I turned 18 that year. I also lost both of my grandmothers in 2006, when I was 17 and 18. Shortly afterwards, my father, who had lived apart from our family since I was 10, moved back in with my mother. I felt like I was going mad. When he announced he was moving in, I had a violent meltdown and trashed the living room of my mother’s house. I felt like I was going to go insane, since now I could not escape his abuse. During the meltdown, I begged my mother to be sent to an institution or mental hospital to get help. She told me that I would not be able to, since my insurance would not cover such a stay. Realizing that this meltdown was not going to get that result, I stopped it and just broke into tears. In the end, my father finally moved back out when things didn’t work between my mother and my father, which was a breath of fresh air for all of us.
But in my 18th year, a breakthrough came. I befriended a girl with ADD who worked as a lifeguard at the local YMCA, and who was a junior in high school at the time. She’d lived a lifetime of being denied services since she didn’t appear to need them, and was perpetually failing in high school. Paradoxically, despite having ADD, she was an amazing lifeguard and did not have any attention problems when lifeguarding. She helped me come to terms with my lack of interest towards girls. She was tall, thin, and blonde—and was seen as a “hot” girl by many of the guys. Yet when we first met at the YMCA, we became very close friends, and opened up to one another emotionally. I revealed to her my struggles coming to terms with my lack of interest in girls. And she considered me one of her best friends because I didn’t hit on her the way the other guys did.
Eventually, she introduced me to the term “asexual.” She helped me understand what asexuality was, and I realized that I had finally found out who I was. I was not weird, or crazy for not liking girls or guys, or people of different genders. I was asexual, and other people I knew were asexual as well. And she also told me that there was nothing wrong with developing non-romantic, emotionally close friendships with girls, and that I didn’t have to look for a girlfriend. This reassurance changed my life, and helped me come to terms with the struggles of my past. I realized that I wasn’t crazy, and that being an Ace was just as much a part of my life as having autism. Accepting this with people who supported me for it changed my life. And my friend eventually introduced me to her friends, and we started to hang out regularly at the YMCA.
Coming out as asexual at the age of 18 changed my life. It transformed me from an introvert to an extrovert. It enabled me to succeed socially when I returned to public high school, at the age of 19. I don’t need to go into the details of what happened to me in high school—most people who follow me know the story already. But I am going to share some of the struggles I have faced in my life as an Ace.
One of the hardest challenges I have endured as an Ace is living in a world that assumes and expects young men to not only be straight, but have very strong sexual interest. This assumption of intense interest by young men has shaped many “hidden curriculum” social rules that men are expected to follow. And Temple Grandin, another individual with autism who is noted for her asexuality, has written about how behavioral expectations based on the “assumptions of sexuality”—what many people new refer to as “assumptions of heterosexual norms”—are some of the hardest social expectations for people with autism to meet and abide by in society.
It is difficult to live in a world where a mere act of kindness towards a female can be seen as a sexual advance, even though many people with autism are naturally kind souls who try to show kindness towards most people, regardless of gender. It is difficult to live in a world where people misunderstood certain body gestures and nonverbal movements as nonverbal signs of sexual interest, even though we know it is quite common for people with autism to have unpredictable gestures and movements that have nothing to do with their sexual orientation. I have lost friends because people have mistaken my “body cues” as signs I was sexually interested in them, even though those cues had nothing to do with sexual interest.
It is difficult to live in a world where my passion for working with young children is sometimes assumed as a precursor for perverted behavior because of my male gender, even though it is quite common for adults with autism to interact well with young children with no interest in any perversion. It is difficult to live in a world where you belong to a gender that fails to understand your orientation—indeed, when I was in high school and came out, it was much easier to explain what asexuality was to other girls, while most other boys did not understand or conceive of the idea. Paradoxically, a bisexual girl I was friends with told me that she had the opposite experience—more boys understood her bisexuality while other girls struggled to understand what she was going through.
And finally, it is difficult, when you live in a world where people who have genders different than you are more understanding, to then cope with the expectations that society levies to be closest with your gender. Guys must have “bros” that they hang out with. Girls must have “girlfriends” that they pour their secrets with. There’s nothing wrong with that. But society struggles with a reality I grew up with, and have observed—that not all guys feel comfortable hanging out with “bros,” and not all girls feel comfortable opening up with groups of “girlfriends.” I have many friends, with and without autism, who prefer opening up to friends of different genders. They should have the right to do so without being judged negatively by society. And cross-gender friendships should have the same rights and privileges as same-gender friendships.
In the end, I can understand abstractly that others are straight, and I can work my hardest to understand that people will judge me as a hypersexual young man, since young men are stereotyped as hypersexual, I cannot change one basic fact—that I must live in a world based on feelings I have never had, and probably never will. That the social expectations that I must live with are based on feelings that don’t exist in my soul and my brain, and that ultimately, it will always be difficult to adjust my behaviors based on feelings that don’t exist.
As the self-advocate with autism Lindsey Nebeker points out in many of her presentations, acceptance is never guaranteed. And no one gets along with everyone, nor can anyone please everyone, as Aesop pointed out in one of his fables. It is my hope that people understand that the same expectations and assumptions that might help most people, and might apply to most people, can be very hurtful to people of different sexual orientations. I myself have to admit that I have been guilty of making this mistake at times too.
But in the end, I believe that even those who have been misunderstood have a duty to try, as much as they possibly can, to understand and respect each other’s differences.
It is my hope that by sharing my insights about asexuality and autism, that others can be more understanding of the realities of being asexual with autism. Many people with autism identify as sexual, even though not all of them do. And the people with autism that identify as asexual often have issues that are far different than that stereotypes and assumptions that associate everyone with autism as identifying as asexual.