WEDNESDAY, May 5, 2021 (HealthDay News) – Adults with autism report a wide range of sexuality – being much more likely to identify as asexual, bisexual or gay than people without autism, according to a new study.
In a survey of nearly 2,400 adults, researchers found that people with autism were three to nine times more likely to identify as gay, asexual, or “other”.
In men, autistic people were more than three times more likely to say they were bisexual, while women had a different pattern: people with autism were not more likely to identify as bisexual, but were three times more likely to say they were gay.
The underlying reasons are unclear. One possibility is that people with autism will be less bound by social expectations and feel more free to express their true identity, said researcher Elizabeth Weir.
Most importantly, people with autism have diverse sexual preferences and experiences, said Weir, a doctoral student at the University of Cambridge in the UK.
The study is not the first to show it. But it offers more evidence to debunk the old stereotype that people with autism are not interested in sex, according to Weir.
“We shouldn’t be making assumptions,” she said. “We have to see this from person to person. “
The findings also underscore another point: Children and adults with autism should have access to sex education and sexual health exams, Weir said.
In reality, however, this is often not the case, noted Eileen Crehan, an assistant professor at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, who was not involved in the research.
“Unfortunately, studies consistently show that access to sex education is poor for students with autism,” said Crehan, who studies social functioning in young people with autism.
She said “outdated beliefs” about autism and sexuality can be a barrier for young people receiving proper sex education.
Beyond that, existing school programs don’t always reach students with autism, Crehan explained.
In some cases, this may be because they are in special education classes, while sex education is only provided in regular classes. In other cases, “sex education may be offered, but is not tailored to the learning profiles of students with autism,” Crehan said.
Then there’s the fact highlighted in this study, she said: Many young people with autism do not identify as heterosexual, which is often the sole focus of sex education.
“The vast majority of sex education programs don’t discuss anything other than heterosexual relationships between cisgender people,” Crehan said.
Autism is a brain development disorder that affects about one in 54 children in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In general, autism impairs people’s ability to communicate and socialize, but the disorder is complex and varies widely from person to person.
Some are deeply affected – speak little, if at all, and get caught up in repetitive and obsessive behaviors. Others have milder difficulties with social skills. Some people have an intellectual disability, while others have an average or above average IQ.
The current survey covered 1,183 people with autism, aged 16 to 90 years. Most did not have a developmental disability, Weir said, as they had to complete a comprehensive online questionnaire.
Overall, people with autism were less likely to say they were sexually active. For every 10 adults without the disorder who were sexually active, four with autism said the same thing. People with autism were also almost eight times more likely to describe themselves as asexual.
There is nothing wrong with not having sex, Weir pointed out. “I don’t think it’s necessary to make a value judgment on this,” she said.
Crehan agreed, but also said that based on previous polls, most people with autism say they want romantic relationships. If people want to be sexually active but aren’t, she noted, it can have negative mental health consequences.
While the survey found differences between adults with and without autism, it also found similarities. Those who were sexually active started having sex around the same age and were just as likely to have had a sexually transmitted infection.
For Crehan, one thing to remember for parents is to bring up the topic of sexuality as early as possible, which can include help from a health care provider.
Kids may need advice on everything from how to tell when someone “likes you,” to “sexting,” to masturbation, according to Crehan. Too often, she noted, sexuality is ignored until “negative sexual behavior” occurs – at school, for example – and there is a big response.
It can leave children with a sense of fear or shame, Crehan said.
“If we talk about sex and sexual health early, and in an honest and safe manner, we set a more positive tone in the discussion in case something positive or negative comes up in the future,” she said. added.
Weir was scheduled to present the findings at the annual meeting of the International Society for Autism Research, to be held online May 3-7. Studies presented at meetings are generally considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
The Autism Research Organization has resources on sexuality and sex education.
SOURCES: Elizabeth Weir, doctoral student, psychiatry, Autism Research Center, University of Cambridge, UK; Eileen Crehan, PhD, Assistant Professor, Child Studies and Human Development, Tufts University, Medford, Mass .; International Society for Autism Research, presentation, online meeting, May 3-7, 2021