Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Autism and Orgasm

Lindsey Nebeker
nakedbrainink.com

One of my blog readers who is on the autism spectrum brought up a concern regarding recent  bedroom issues. This person is finding that the process of achieving orgasm has become increasingly difficult:
"[Since learning more about my ASD diagnosis] I've been noticing a growing awareness in what is going on around me and what my body is feeling ... and it is becoming sort of distracting during sex, mainly orgasm. As I began to feel my self start to climax I suddenly became very focused on the noises and things in the room such as the fan running, and how the moving air felt on my skin. Then I suddenly became overwhelmed with my body itself, to the point that it took away the orgasm. I focused intensely on how the sheets felt against my skin, how my partner’s skin felt on mine, how my hands felt running through [my partner’s] hair, then the ever knowing coldness I get through my body in that passionate moment. I kept thinking ... what is wrong with me? Is there something wrong with me? Why in this moment of love am I so overwhelmed with my surroundings when I have something so special happening? Do [people on the spectrum] experience intimacy and orgasms differently [than others]? It was way more intense but very overwhelming to me, too."
This person is not alone. Others on the spectrum have voiced similar concerns and curiosity regarding these specific issues, which is a good excuse to bring up such a bold topic.

Let’s make one thing clear: people with autism do experience orgasms. But how different is the orgasm experience for an autistic individual? Is it more intense? Is it less intense? Is it the same?

There has yet to be a scientific study conducted on orgasm and its effect on people on the autism spectrum.  So just for entertainment’s sake, we will discuss the possible hypotheses, address the possible challenges unique to individuals with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or sensory sensitivities based on personal perspectives, and wrap up with final thoughts.

First, let's break down the hypotheses...



Hypothesis #1: Orgasms experienced by ASD individuals are similar to individuals without ASD

What supports this argument is our physical development. For most of us on the spectrum, our physical body structure and reproductive system mirrors neurotypical development. When puberty hits, most of us experience typical physical changes. Girls produce eggs, develop menstrual periods and grow breasts. Boys produce sperm, experience nocturnal emissions (a.k.a. wet dreams), and may experience a voice change. Both sexes grow body hair. When our bodies are fully mature, women and girls have the ability to get pregnant. Men and boys have the ability to ejaculate. Women and girls have the ability to give birth. Women experience menopause as they age.  Men may experience erectile dysfunction as they age. Why wouldn't our sexual response cycle be similar?

Although some of us have difficulty in figuring out how to handle changes during puberty, reproductive development and aging, what our bodies go through is no different than what individuals without ASD go through.  So it wouldn’t be outrageous to assume the way our bodies respond to to orgasm is more-or-less the same.

Hypothesis #2: Orgasms experienced by ASD individuals are different from individuals without ASD

Time to play devil’s advocate.

When we talk about autism and sex, we cannot disregard the role our sensory system plays. Sex and intimacy between couples where one or both partners have ASD is highly influenced by the sensory system. Sensations which trigger a strong reaction, whether painful or pleasurable, tend to be amplified. This has been proven in day-to-day life activities, and it could easily apply to orgasms.

An orgasm (which occurs in the climax phase of the sexual response cycle) is a full-body response.  But the genital area is not the only part of the body that has to feel right ... the whole body has to feel right. The whole body has to be prepared to take in that type of response. 'The stars have to be aligned,' figuratively speaking. However, it is absolutely possible to arrange a set-up where an orgasm can be achieved -- with practice, a person can develop or adopt methods which speed up the process of preparing the body for orgasm.  Most individuals on the spectrum, regardless of cognitive comprehension or communication level, have been able to figure out the right set-up to experience orgasms on a regular basis.

Some individuals have not developed a “filter” for recognizing where, when, and what sexual behaviors are appropriate. Those individuals are not as concerned about displaying sexual behavior in another person’s presence, as they are more focused on setting themselves up and preparing their own bodies to experience orgasm. They require extra guidance from family, professionals, and educators to help them understand that it is perfectly okay to engage in sexual behavior as long as it is done privately by oneself or with consenting sexual partners.

Other individuals have applied a “filter” to such an extent that exposure is frightening and uncomfortable, even in the presence of a consenting sexual partner. Such individuals may still be capable of enjoying intimacy and sex, but may never achieve climax (we will discuss this more later).

Orgasms release a chemical called oxytocin. There has been some discussion on ASDs and its link to oxytocin levels, brought up by both researchers and individuals on the spectrum. We know oxytocin plays a role in the effects of orgasm, but we remain uncertain on oxytocin’s role in the quality of orgasm. (At the very least, it can spark an interesting conversation around the dinner table.)

It would not be surprising to hear future scientific evidence supporting the idea that an orgasm experienced by an individual with ASD can easily be more intense than the average orgasm experienced by an individual without ASD.

Next, we will discuss the challenges...

Possible challenges in achieving orgasm for individuals with ASD

Are there people on the spectrum whose issues prevent them from achieving orgasm?  Absolutely ... as is the case with neurotypical individuals. The reasons for these issues vary, but here are possible challenges unique to autistic individuals:

1. Lack of appropriate sexual education

Personal accounts of individuals on the spectrum often reveal they were not given the proper amount of sexual education during their teen years, often leading to sexual issues in adulthood. The ideal sex education curriculum needs to be well-rounded. Sex education should not only be about protection from sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), birth control, and identifying the sperm and the egg. Sex education should also be about encouraging sexual exploration and learning more about what your body likes and doesn’t like. It’s about learning what areas are usually stimulated in order to reach climax and the proper technique for stimulation. This does not need to be a hands-on demonstration (except with a sexual partner), but it’s good to at least talk about it.

Educators may assume that students with ASD will just “pick up” on it like the other kids, but keep in mind that individuals with autism often don’t “pick up” on things the same way others do.

2. Temporary surrender of self-control

In order for an orgasm to be effective and enjoyed to its full potential, it requires one to temporarily surrender self-control to unknown energies and forces. One also has to be aware that the body responses that occur during and after an orgasm are often unpredictable. These things may include the length of time, range of intensity, changes in body temperature, heart rate, involuntary muscle contractions (usually in the pelvic region), and the amount of seminal and vaginal fluid that is discharged. It's like sneezing, according to Dr. Alfred Kinsey.

For many autistic individuals, self control is essential. Our rituals, routines, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, and all accompanying addictive behaviors are run by a need for self control. Several people on the spectrum have pointed out that letting go even a little of that self control is an issue when engaging in intimacy or role play with a partner. They may be able to enjoy intimate and sexual exchanges, but the only way that individual is able to achieve an orgasm is through masturbation or other self-stimulation methods -- where the individual maintains at least some control.

It is important to point out that not all of that self-control has to be surrendered to enjoy an orgasm.  Ways to retain some of that self-control include choice of location, choice of stimulation target, choice of sexual partner, and auditory response.

Even so, some ASD individuals still feel that the sensations and loss of control that accompany climax can end up being far too overwhelming -- with oneself or with a partner. They may avoid intimacy and orgasms altogether.

For the vast majority of ASD individuals, giving up self control for a brief moment of orgasmic bliss (with oneself or with a sexual partner) doesn’t end up being a major concern.

3. Surrounding environment not sensory-friendly

The environment plays a crucial role in our sensory sensitivities in our daily life’s activities, and it is no different in the bedroom. We will not be discussing the sensory issues in detail in this article, but here is a list of some environmental factors which can affect our sensory sensitivities during intimacy and orgasm:
  • Aroma (specific types and strength levels)
  • Air temperature
  • Body temperature
  • Body moisture
  • Lighting levels
  • Colors and hues (found in lighting, walls, objects, bedding, etc.)
  • Body exposure to the elements
  • Bedding (mattress, sheets, pillows)
  • Frequency and intensity of noise in the background (music, TV, pets, outdoor noises)
Our sensory interaction with the surrounding environment dictates the level of ease or difficulty in sustaining arousal and climax.

4. Sensation areas in the body: over-stimulating or under-stimulating

The autism spectrum involves all five areas of the sensory profile, in diverse ways. In every individual, there are areas which may be hypersensitive, areas which are more-or-less elevated, and areas which may be hypo-sensitive (see also Sensory Processing Disorder). It is possible that hyper-sensitivity can be developed around the genital region and other sexual “hot spots” to the point where it takes minimal effort to reach climax. It is also possible that hypo-sensitivity can be developed in these same areas to the point where sexual arousal is not left to be desired. Then, there are some cases where an individual can only “get off” when their genital area is rubbed or comes in contact with a certain texture, pressure, or surface firmness.

The amount of physical pressure given by a partner or object can play a significant role.  Some people may need to be held tightly or pressed down in order to climax.  Some people may need minimal pressure or touch in order to climax. In all cases, the person needs to have control over the amount of pressure being given.

5. Breathing technique

The orgasm quality, not to be confused with quantity, can affect some individuals due to the challenges in proper breathing technique (often applied in tantric sex). In a way, breathing and spoken language are interconnected. Proper breathing and spoken language are not naturally acquired in autism, even for those who have learned how to speak. Those of us with speech difficulties or a history of delayed speech can appreciate the challenge of figuring out when and how to breathe while talking.

One reason why learning spoken language is a complex task is that speaking involves learning how to breathe “correctly” when projecting sounds. Training the body to achieve an ideal quality orgasm also involves monitoring breathing technique, which can turn into a multitasking activity. If a person concentrates too little or too much in his or her breathing technique, then it can affect the quality of orgasm.

However, the level of advancement in breathing and spoken language skills do not in any way determine the ability of the body to experience orgasms. With practice and exploration (by oneself and/or with a partner), an individual can learn to figure out what breathing pattern works best for his or her body to prepare for ideal quality orgasm.

For those of you who want to be even more experimental and explore more into how orgasms can be achieved just by breathing alone, a woman featured on an episode of TLC’s Strange Sex is well-known for instructing this technique.

Considering the challenges in achieving orgasm which are not ASD related 

Before drawing immediate conclusions that the difficulty in achieving orgasms has to do with the lack of proper sex education, issues with self-control, environmental sensory violations, sensation responses, or breathing technique, you may want to consider other factors: trust issues, aging, health, prescription drug side effects, anxiety over body image, history of sexual trauma or abuse, or simply your partner not knowing the correct approach and techniques to 'get you off.'

Consulting with a trusted doctor, therapist, or other health specialist may help you determine if any of these may be causing your difficulties.

If your sexual partner is unaware of the approach and techniques you need to climax, you will need to guide your partner through the strategies that work for you.

Now, on to final thoughts and a few entertaining facts about orgasms....

In closing...

Like snowflakes, no two orgasms are alike. Personal stories shared by those with ASD and those without ASD reveal that every orgasm varies in intensity, length, and target of stimulation. How the orgasms are experienced is more difficult to compare because of the difficulty of describing it verbatim.

So, is the orgasm experience for an individual with autism more intense, not as intense, or the same?  We have no real way of telling -- the debate contains only speculation, wild guessing, and personal accounts.  Even when personal experiences are shared, an individual with ASD can only share what it’s like for an individual with ASD, and an individual without ASD can only share what an orgasm is like for an individual without ASD.

Although research continues to be done on the human orgasmic experience in and of itself, an official study has yet to be conducted to support the possible unique factors in orgasms experienced by an autistic individual. Considering there are so many other autism-related factors waiting to be funded and approved for research, it may be a while before orgasms even get “touched” on. For now, we can continue to speculate, while building our knowledge with what scientific research has claimed about orgasms in general, summarized in entertaining speeches like the one delivered by Mary Roach at a 2009 TED conference:



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A version of this essay was previously published at nakedbrainink.com