On Saturday, 4th May, we attended a special interest group and panel session on gender, sexuality and romantic relationships in autism.
Relationships and sexuality are central to health and well-being, and autistic people, their families, and healthcare professionals express the need for more research and guidance on this specifically in relation to autism. Whilst there is increasing research on this topic, many questions about the impact of this on the daily lives of autistic individuals remain.
Assessing research priorities, Jeroen Dewinter (Tilburg University) found three general themes –
1) Getting a better understanding of the topic. Questions people had centered on sexual development across lifespan, sexuality and intellectual disability, experiences/needs of LGBT+ autistic people, sexual identity development, gender differences, pregnancy and parenthood, healthcare, sensory issues, and wellbeing.
2) Improving support and intervention. How to support and promote sexual wellbeing and healthy romantic relationships, preventing offending and victimization, improve healthcare experiences and needs, and involving and supporting families, partners and professionals.
3) Changing societal views and practices through a participatory approach.
Mark Stokes (Deakin University) shared insights into the sexual experiences of autistic women. He found that autistic women are at greater risk of negative sexual experiences, including victimisation and abuse.
Anne Kirby (University of Utah) offered insights into how autistic people process sensory information with respect to sexuality and dating. This could be positive or negative, such as avoiding physical contact/dating, and sensory processing altering their desire, ability or willingness to participate in partnered sexual activity.
Anna van der Miesen (Amsterdam University Medical Centre) discussed the experiences and needs of professionals when working with autistic adults who questioned their gender identity. She spoke about the need for greater knowledge on gender issues among professionals working with autistic people in order to provide them with appropriate support.