By Amy Norton HealthDay Reporter
WEDNESDAY, May 5, 2021 (HealthDay News) — Adults with autism report a wide range of sexuality — being far 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.”
Among men, people with autism were more than three times as likely to self-identify as bisexual, while women showed a different pattern: people with autism were not more likely to identify as bisexual, but were three times more likely to call themselves homosexuals.
The underlying reasons are unclear. One possibility is that people with autism are less bound by social expectations and feel more free to express their true identities, said researcher Elizabeth Weir.
The most important point is that people with autism have diverse sexual preferences and experiences, said Weir, a PhD student at the University of Cambridge in the UK.
The study is not the first to show this. But it offers more evidence to debunk the old stereotype that people with autism aren’t interested in sex, according to Weir.
“We shouldn’t make assumptions,” she said. “We have to see this person to person.”
The findings also underscore another point: Children and adults with autism should have access to sex education and sexual health screenings, Weir said.
In reality, however, that’s often not the case, noted Eileen Crehan, an assistant professor at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., who was not involved in the research.
“Unfortunately, studies consistently show that access to sex education is low 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She said “outdated beliefs” about autism and sexuality can be a barrier for young people receiving proper sex education.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 mainstream 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 don’t identify as heterosexual, which is often the only goal of sex education.
“The vast majority of sex ed programs deal with nothing but 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 individual to individual.
Some are deeply affected – speaking little or not at all, and getting 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 involved 1,183 people with autism, aged 16 to 90. Most did not have an intellectual disability, Weir said, because they had to complete an extensive 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 autistics said the same. People with autism were also almost eight times more likely to describe themselves as asexual.
There’s nothing wrong with not having sex, Weir pointed out. “I don’t think it’s necessary to make a value judgment on that,” she said.
Crehan agreed, but also said that, based on previous surveys, most people with autism say they want romantic relationships. If people want to be sexually active but aren’t, she noted, it can harm mental health.
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, a takeaway for parents is to bring up the topic of sexuality as early as possible, which can include getting help from a health care provider.
According to Crehan, children may need guidance on everything from how to tell when someone “likes you” to “sexting” to masturbating. 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 kids feeling scared or ashamed, Crehan said.
“If we talk about sex and sexual health early, and in an honest and safe way, we will set a more positive tone for the discussion in case something good or bad comes up in the future,” she said. added.
Weir was due to present the findings at the annual meeting of the International Society for Autism Research, which will be held online May 3-7. Studies presented at meetings are generally considered preliminary until they are published in a peer-reviewed journal.
SOURCES: Elizabeth Weir, PhD candidate, psychiatry, Autism Research Centre, 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
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