The Autism Spectrum According to Autistic People

The Autism Spectrum
According to Autistic People

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Sapiosexuality: Is it an ableist concept or valid identity?

Just days after I was diagnosed as autistic, I dove into social media and frenetically joined scores of groups for Autistic people. 

There was moment after moment of, “Oh, you do that, too?” Or, “Oh, that’s a thing?”

I had truly found my people after a lifetime is being the odd one out who was viewed as willfully eccentric, like I had a pathological need to perform as different in all contexts. It turned out, I was quite relieved to be normal for once, and I absolutely was normal in autistic spaces.

In one group with a little more edge and a little less activism than the dominant culture, a brave conversation about sex started up.  

By sex, I mean the act. Intercourse. Doing it. Getting it on. Netflix and chill. 

I was eager to commiserate with fellow outcasts about all of those sexual inclinations that other people didn’t get. 

First, someone mentioned being grossed out by sounds associated with sex, particularly mouth sounds. 

Check. 

Then someone said they were not usually into it unless a very specific set of circumstances happen first. 

Check. 

At this point, I chimed in. I expected to hear someone say that they understood. After all, I had spent twenty-ish years searching for the sexual encounter in my mind that never quite panned out in reality.

I told them that I couldn’t really be into sex unless there were days of intellectual banter, and that I was turned on by being dominated in words and high pain thresholds for existential suffering. 

To clarify that, I am not talking about being turned on by banter about sexual acts. In fact, direct talk about sex is repulsive. I can have my gag reflex activated by someone mentioning what they want to do to “boobs.”

So graceless. It translates as the promise of a slimy assault with juvenile slang to describe genitals and actions.

I’m turned on by someone with the intellectual pain threshold to have long and invigorating cerebral cage matches with me, or to accompany me on an literary scavenger hunt, until we are both metaphorically broken and cognitively exhausted. 

I need someone who can go below the deepest carved layer at the foundation of human knowledge and dig a tunnel. I need someone who can tolerate the altitude sickness of climbing an epistemological mountain with me, to drag me, embattled, through heated rhetorical games and rise to my level of intensity. 

I need someone who can draw blood, who will beat me to my knees with their challenges to my morality and my character, and who can admit with a depleted, one-sided grin that I’ve got him in checkmate when that climactic epiphany dawns on me. 

I want to be threatened with literary quotes that serve as metaphors for the sexual malice that is to come– whether or not it actually happens. I want this game to go on for days or weeks until my knees are like rubber and my hunger is irascible. 

I want to be sent to the dictionary. 

I love a man with a big diction. 

I want to be schooled in the fine art of anything that is truly interesting that has nothing to do with sports or celebrities or mainstream anything. Knowledge of black holes and theoretical or metaphorical conjecture about their significance is a requisite.

I want to defer to the wisdom of someone who has put in thousands of hours on a topic that is totally impractical for its degree of obscurity but has practical life application that is complementary with my oddly specialized knowledge. 

I want someone to remember that clever thing I said weeks ago and then quote me on it, verbatim, and to respond with that clever thing he said weeks ago, in another context, and quote him verbatim. I want him to find that wildly sexy.

I want the crescendo to sex to be an adventure so intellectually stimulating that I’m rendered nonverbal and limp at that perfect bellicose Lord Byron quote whispered in my ear. 

Enter Sapiosexuality

But back to the autistic group. I managed to condense the aforementioned into a sentence, and I would learn two new words in the next few minutes. 

The first word was sapiosexual

It’s defined by Merriam-Webster as:

of, relating to, or characterized by sexual or romantic attraction to highly intelligent people

I felt like I’d been seen. I mean, that’s really the only thing that has the capacity to make me feel attracted or to want sex. 

Then, a few posts down the line, I learned another new word and would find that not every trip to the dictionary was so provocative. That word was ableism

Merriam Webster defines ableism as:

discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities

Well, damn. 

Just about as fast as I had felt seen, I would abandon the concept of sapiosexuality to never be revisited again. 

At least, not until I wrote an article detailing the devastating clumsiness of my sex life and saw the commentary about my brain and body left around the internet. 

A few people mentioned sapiosexuality. I was a little excited by this because no one jumped on to say that I was discriminating against people with intellectual disability. 

That’s not something I’d ever want to do.

I’m not discriminatory in any other areas, and in my head, I don’t really conceive of this psychological foreplay as intelligence so much as intellectual fearlessness. I want someone who can do battle with me in the only realm where I have a little bit of prowess, and I think that is more relative to personality than intellect. 

I’m just really turned off by cowardice, and I think most people are too afraid to dive deep enough to risk injury to their fragile illusions. I can’t see someone as sexy after they’ve gone Dunning Kruger and proclaimed to know something they can’t really know. 

I don’t want someone who is okay with just accepting common knowledge. I don’t want someone who will dismiss me as if I’m trying to argue when I throw down a challenge. I want someone to see my hubris and feel invigorated by it, to call my bluff or to raise me with their counter challenge. 

I want to win sometimes, and have them cede that to me without resenting me for dragging them through all the brutal overthinking that would exhaust a mere mortal.

I want them to think I’m hilarious when I quote some droll line from Flannery O’Conner and to follow it up with an equally glib quote from Ellison. 

I want to not be resented as a woman for being what is usually attributed to men. I want my dark humor to be met like a macabre pissing contest with insults alluding to serial killers, warlords, and fictional antiheroes. 

I really want to lose these battles. 

I Have a Lover Who Doesn’t Exist

Without all that, I’m not capable of feeling sexual attraction. If I get there, it’s only because in my fantasy life I’ve been having this battle for days with a lover who has been in my head for more years than I’m ready to even admit anonymously. 

I’ve been with this person for a long time, who was with me before I even knew what sex was. I’ve compared everyone to him and looked for glimpses of him in anyone else I was ever with. He’s not an imaginary friend. I have no illusions. 

He’s more like a character in the world I wish existed, or at least the co-conspirator who would temper my big emotions with his love of irreverence and dark truths. He’s the protagonist in the novels I’ve been writing since I was nine or ten years old. 

I’ve often wondered if maybe I’m trans, and that this person is me without the resentment and anger at being forced into ballet and Sunday dresses and tights and piano lessons and being “lady like” when I wanted to play drums and do mixed martial arts and be a physicist. 

Other musings have led me to leave my rational grounding. Was he a lover from a past life? Was he out there somewhere leading mutinies without me, burning apathetically through lovers? Was I occupying his headspace?

When you’re as different as I am, these thoughts happen. You will inevitably conjecture that you’re not even a human.

Or are most people just really bad at valuing deep thinking and anarchy? Do most people think that love is synonymous with ownership? Am I so desperate for someone who understands that sexuality is a cerebral and sensory expression that requires boundaries and consent with more longevity than the few minutes of actual sex that I had to invent a fictional person to understand myself? 

In order to be able to give myself permission to believe I deserved respect, did I have to write novels and invent people who didn’t think that my body and mind belonged to them?

I have also assumed that I’m mostly asexual. My sexual fantasies rarely include sex but are rather provocative. 

My fantasy life is anti-social. My notion of public exhibitionism is being attracted to the idea of someone breaking the peace by saying something brutally honest, maybe some form of blasphemy that jars people with its rawness. 

I really do fantasize about someone calling out racism or elitism or hypocrisy in such eloquent savagery and with such definitive bravado that people clutch their pearls and collapse onto their fainting couches in dismay and denial. 

This is something that I probably associate more with courage or conviction than with intelligence, though. I would appreciate those insurrections from anyone, but I do suppose the sexy factor is increased by a slurry of academic jargon mixed in with creative swears– spoken or written. 

I think subversive letters to the editor from socialist professors are porn. 

How Sapiosexuality is Defined in Pop Psych

I’m going meta and admitting that I didn’t spend any time reading about Sapiosexuality online until I got to this point of the article.

I guess maybe it is a thing…

In a Psychology Today article by Diana Raab, she explains sapiosexuality beyond the idea of just being attracted to intellect:

Those who admit to being sapiosexual will say that they are turned on by the brain, and tend to be teased or excited by the insights of another person. This means the person whom you are attracted to might have a tendency to have an incisive, inquisitive, and irreverent mind. As foreplay, the sapiosexual person may crave philosophical, political, or psychological discussions, because this turns them on. Although the attraction is not always connected to sexuality, it often is. Sometimes, however, platonic friendships between the sexes are also dependent on sapiosexual desires. This intellectual synergy simply fires up the relationship.

Yeah, about that…

So, someone can be ace (asexual) and sapio? My most lurid relationships never culminated in physical sexual activity. There was always a deep friendship that eventually became something like profound love. 

I do have physical traits I find attractive. They’re weird, of course. I like skinny– not just lean. Lanky, like someone who gets so involved in deep dives that they forget to eat. I like long hair, or at least hair that breaks social convention and gives the unintended impression of giving no fucks. 

I like clothes with no visible brands or bold colors that look old and suggest the person hates capitalism and doesn’t care what anyone thinks about their choices.

I love facial asymmetry. I can’t resist a crooked grin or that one eye that droops a little after three days of sleepless reverie spent in a rabbit hole. I am attracted to mutism because I know what it means. 

None of those things matter very much though. Neither does age (within reason), gender, body type, race, or much of anything physical. I also have no relationship with my own body and see it as foreign to me. 

In an article by Mary Retta, she outlines 4 signs of being sapiosexual:

  1. You are drawn to a potential partner’s intelligence more than looks or personality.
  2. Intellectual conversations turn you on.
  3. You need to have an intellectual discussion before sex crosses your mind.
  4. Intellectual spark is more important to you than even the emotional spark.

This last point kind of shocked me because I had been previously identifying as demisexual. She goes on to explain:

Sapiosexuality is the need to build an intellectual attraction before a sexual attraction will occur, while demisexuality is the need to build an emotional connection before a sexual attraction will occur,” Shane explains. “For a sexual attraction to begin, a sapiosexual person is seeking someone on the same intellectual level they are on, whereas a demisexual person is seeking someone who will share their feelings and emotions.”

Oh hell. Yeah, I’m busted.

I guess I was today years old when I learned I’m not demi. Unless someone’s emotional expression stops at courage and moral outrage, “emotional bonding” reads to me as “beseiging you with their ego-driven insecurities to make themselves the center of your universe.”

That’s just not my thing. I don’t even care about my own emotions.

Is Sapiosexuality a part of the LGBTQ+ Spectrum? 

Apparently, this is a source of debate. Much like someone who is ace or demi, a sapiosexual does not face any kind of open discrimination like someone who is trans, gay, or pansexual. They aren’t actively persecuted for their sexuality; however, being so very different in desire and having such vastly different expectations makes finding and staying in a relationship difficult. 

Further, someone who is sapio may very well be gay, trans, or pansexual. They may not care at all about the body that houses the mind. They may not even desire physical contact. 

Personally, I don’t understand or care about gender. My sexual desires are more about words and the passion that built them than contact. I really don’t even need to interact with someone or know what their gender is to find them attractive.

I don’t imagine someone’s face or body when I think of them. I imagine the challenges and mutinies they’ve put to words. I imagine the fight in their spirit and their rebellions. 

Is Sapiosexuality Ableist or Elitist?

That depends. I theorize that my sexuality is directly an extension of the way that I exist as an autistic person who has been called stupid, moron, idiot, and even the R- word slur about as many times as I’ve been called gifted. 

Intelligence is in the eye (and biases) of the beholder. It’s a subjective construct.

Intelligence exists, and it’s not measurable by IQ. Anyone can have different types of intelligence. The people I am attracted to are often accused of having no emotional intelligence. They’re not athletes and usually have a list of learning disabilities or mental health diagnoses.

Honestly, I fancy a bit of crazy. 

What intelligence means to me is very different from what intelligence means to most people.

I like big words, and I cannot lie. 

I like curiosity, daring thinkers, cognitive rule breakers, people who are specialized in some/many fields who have gifts to give to the thankless world. I hate ego but love a bit of earned arrogance. 

I think this is called intelligence until someone is diagnosed as autistic, and then it’s just being pedantic, arrogant, rigid, socially inappropriate, or whatever else gets associated with autism. 

But sapiosexuality is all that fits the way I experience attraction, love, and desire. I’ve been this way always. 

I’m not going to be attracted to someone who engages in groupthink and mob mentality, who cares about physical appearance, who needs social approval to validate their actions and beliefs, who subscribes to any form of dogma, or who feels entitled to talk about subjects they don’t go deep to learn. 

These traits are mostly unrelated to test scores or IQ. In fact, the kind of person I would be attracted to would likely fail tests on purpose in defiance of being put inside some socially-constructed cage. They reject the notion of intelligence on principle. 

Also, attraction is by nature and exclusionary act. People are generally not attracted to everyone who exists. Stating a preference for a body type, an age range, a race, or even a gender is an act of exclusion. Those preferences are influenced by cultural, social, and personal biases. Sometimes, even stating exclusion is harmful. Sometimes, it’s fetishizing a superficial trait that robs people of their humanity.

For example, claiming be attracted to men but not trans men is harmful and invalidating. It may be true, but it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t come with prejudice or cause harm to state it.

If someone only wants to date people of specific ethnicities (different from their own), that means they’re attracted to stereotypes. They’ve reduced complex humans to an ideal based on prejudice. No matter how wrong it is, it’s also not conducive to a healthy, mutual relationship.

Is sapiosexuality a fetish, or is it a harmless recognition of what a person needs to feel relatedness in intimacy?

Personally, without relating to someone who fits this type, I’m very alone. I’m always lonely, even though I’ve never spent any significant span of time without a lover. I struggle with always being on a different page sexually and feel like I have to perform because most people are different from me. It means that I feel like I’m never getting my needs met and that I’m doing what I don’t like to meet my partner’s needs.

I think it would’ve been helpful to understand all of this years ago. I’ve suffered a lot being in the dark and not knowing I was autistic. I have also suffered not understanding how differently attraction worked for me. I’ve suffered quite a bit of sexual abuse. I think most of this suffering was needless, and all this PTSD has wrecked my ability to even be able to relax… ever. I’m always actively suffering, and it’s even wrecking my mental health.

I’m not sure how to answer the question of whether or not sapiosexuality is ableist, but it’s certainly true to me. I don’t think my way of conceiving sapiosexuality is harmful. I don’t think my way of conceiving autism is harmful. But everything I do has to be filtered through the knowledge that I have to account for everyone’s biases and then consider how I am likely to end up someone’s bigoted example of confirmation bias.

If someone fields lovers based on a pretentious mainstream fetish of intelligence, who likes the curated social media persona of a coffee shop revolutionary quoting Neitchze and publicly amassing a resume of showy credentials, then it’s a fetish. 

That’s all gross to me. 

Neitchze was a pontificating poser who tried to intellectualize the most ardent acolytes of the status quo as the existential high ground. 

I’m much more attracted to altruistic anarchy. How can I separate my needs and my truth from people who think eugenics is acceptable? The people I am attracted to are the inconvenient and uncomfortable truths that bigots want to erase from the gene pool.

Is there a sexual orientation for that?

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10 Responses

  1. For what it’s worth, I don’t think it’s elitist at all. It’s a basic human need to have at least a few people in your life on the same intellectual level as yourself so that it is fair on both you and the other(s).

    Otherwise the other person would be too shallow for you and you would be going over their head. Not a good match if you ask me, you would both end up frustrated with one another.

  2. So i used to think i had this as a fetish. That it was just a preference and I kept moving on. However, one day, i was thinking back on my relationships and realized the connections i made (which I am also demisexual) and realized there was a certain level of intelligence that connected me to said people. That i get excited by discussions of philosophy and even just from people speaking other languages because it makes my brain start wanting to hear in that language. I realized it was sapiosexual to its core. I don’t view intelligence as a number— and even if someone had a disability there, i also am about meeting the person (pan/poly/Demi/sapio)….

  3. Being seen and understood by a partner is a core need. You are much more likely to have it met by someone who can match you intellectually. Being aware of your needs is not ableist. Repeatedly entering into relationships with people you know are not going to meet your needs and denigrating them for it might be. It’s clear you have the self-awareness to avoid doing this.

  4. *fans self* damn…guess I should have been warned by the title, but uh..*phew* You got a way with words.
    Right, I’m Grey-ace in that I don’t have a gendered orientation.

    But I do have an appetite, sexual that is. And it can be flipped on by….some of what you were just doing. *ahem*
    And I don’t have a choice, because it’s not connected to my sapio-romanticism, which is what I think you’re talking about. See, if I had to know *why* you were you before your traipse through the thesaurus raised my heart rate, that’d be the romantic-emotional component, right?

    But I don’t know you, haven’t seen you. Even with people I may not like a solid word-smithing can make my head spin. That’s sapiosexual for me. Otherwise, I’m not sex repulsed, but not generally affected. Put me in front of a brilliant college professor answering my questions and I’m distracted. It’s inconvenient, and sometimes a bit awkward.

    I don’t make any association between intelligence (and yeah, I know about the types and the issues with iq and tests) and any kind of value; it just….does it for me. Whether I want it to or not. Which is why usually I don’t say anything because as you’ve discovered, it’s no fun having this really uncomfortable sexual response only to have it judged in one of the few ways still socially acceptable.

    FWIW I am also sapio-romantic and that generally gets a ping for one person a decade. I don’t connect much.
    *shrug*
    Good luck finding your kind

  5. I feel that the definition of sapiosexual is vastly different between neurotypes, class, gender etc. In the world I grew up in, the one where I was a girl and put in a dress, consequently treated as less than that of the man. Where it was mum married dad, had the babies and others said that divorce is a sin despite any sexual abuse because that is what god wants and it was expect of them. Where it was assumed that I would date all the boys, get married, produce grandchildren and still pretend to be that girl they told me I was while resigning to my unhappy marriage with someone who only has one thing in common with me….. sex and not even good sex at that. If it is that world, then I would say it is absolutely ableist because I would not be considered intelligent but I would be considered attractive enough (talking to a cisgender man and having boobs I have found is the bar. UGH!) to have someone try to manipulate me in order to convince me that I should have sex with them.
    In the world I live in, having morals and being ethical counts. Accepting me as I am, understanding why I am the way I am, using correct pronouns and not having unrealistic expectations count. If someone doesn’t respect me or others then their intelligence counts for nothing and that is where the difference lies.

  6. This was a fascinating read, and I really like your writing style. Your post was shared on the “Unashamed Voices of Autism” FB page, which is how I stumbled upon it, and the commentary has mostly been, in summary, “We’re really not a fan of this definition of sapiosexuality, or the concept as a whole.” I bring this to your post directly because I think you will find their concerns worth considering.

    First of all, your feelings of attraction to this particular type of intelligence is 100% valid. And your feelings surrounding your personal orientation to sex and sexuality are 100% valid. I do not think anyone wants to invalidate your experiences, and some commenters feel similarly.

    The issue comes from putting an attraction to a certain intelligence profile into an orientation. Your definition of intelligence appears to be fairly narrow. I dated a man who definitely could not out-talk you (he couldn’t even out-talk me), but he could solve a Rubix cube in 20 seconds or less. That’s intelligence, right?

    In addition, I know you mention your disdain for Neitchze, but I suspect you have read some of the works of “the philosophers.” All I know about them is what Contrapoints and Philosophy Tube tell me about them, and from my understanding they were very white and wealthy. It’s good stuff to read, I’m sure, but I know my intelligence doesn’t fall into your sapoisexual definition because when I choose a book or essay to read, I’m reading contemporary content by diverse authors I can easily condense into laypeople’s language for when I need it later (that’s not a humble brag btw; I’m just a brainwashed queer autistic white lady trying to dismantle her own racism and the racism of her acquaintances). It’s not hard stuff to read, but I need the content. I think I’m still intelligent, but not the kind you’re attracted to.

    So can we really have a single word for “attraction to intelligence” if intelligence can be defined so broadly? I know it would be easier to describe yourself if there was a word for what you were feeling, but I’m afraid the term you have chosen is too exclusionary and, more importantly, perpetuates a number of systems of marginalization.

    1. Megan, thank you for this thoughtful and reasoned response.

      There are a few things that I would like to respectfully challenge or at least expand on. The first would be that this was me interacting with a word that someone put on me from a previous article, or something that I saw in comments. I’d seen it only once before, and had let it go because it was deemed ableist. In exploring myself and my needs, and in empathizing with the many people who said that the previous article was the first time that they felt seen, I wanted to expand some on my way of experiencing attraction.

      Much like the flavor of foods that I like or dislike, I cannot force an attraction and trying to convince myself to will mean that I will be settling into learned helplessness. That’s where I have been for my most of my life.

      Believe me, I have been receiving the critical comments calling me everything that I’ve ever hated.

      This article was not a position statement. It was an exploration of myself against a word someone else tacked onto me in response to another article. If you managed to read all the way through, I condemned the notion of intelligence and especially IQ many times. I said that for me that intellectual curiosity was closer to what I like in someone. And intellectual courage. I rejected any notions of ability and instead said that if there was a term that said that the thing that attracts me is fearlessness and curiosity, then that would be better.

      I don’t read Neitchze or many “old rich white men.” I read contemporary literature. I read most of the time, in fact. That is about all I do. Words are really the only kind of information that I can process.

      Also, I’m not sure why you keep saying that you’re “not the kind I’m attracted to” with regards to intelligence. You are the person who came here to challenge and educate me instead of to write me off as an ableist. You came to have a conversation and that is courage and curiosity. That’s exactly the type of people who attract me (in platonic ways, as well. Please don’t feel this is a covert come-on, lol).

      But, the primary thing I’d like to challenge is that I did not choose that word. Someone said it about me, I explored it, decided that it was harmful even if parts of it rang true to me, then ultimately chose to reject it. I ended wishing there could be a word that meant being attracted to intellectual courage (the quality of being unafraid to think in ways that challenge oneself and not related at all to ability).

      One thing that I wish people would have done is taken the time to absorb what I said and see that I was not defending the term at all. Quite to the contrary. While aspects are true, I’m tired of people fetishizing and dehumanizing and pathologizing humans for being different. But, only someone who is different in a way that is similar to me will ever get me or be able to see me or appreciate me. Otherwise, they will think that I am choosing to be pretentious and “showing off.” They’ll think I’m arguing. They’ll be exhausted by me because I need someone to be able to walk with me through exploring an issue to death– and also someone who will not expect me to take a position on something (anything) without exploring it deeply. I literally can’t. Not in words, and not in deed. That is unrelated to intelligence.

      This article wasn’t about sapiosexuality. That’s just a word that someone coined, and a label is a restraint that will inevitably encourage people to use it in harmful ways. This article was about me (and hopefully, for some people who relate, others) unpacking my sexual shame and trying to depathologize my communication and my sexuality.

      I don’t need a label. I need self-awareness and self-confidence. I don’t even need a community. I need to find a way to have some self-love and to stop apologizing for my ways of needing consent, support, and to be shown love.

      I have an idea and will write another piece soon in response to this.

  7. Noetisexual — It’s a mental attraction rather than a purely “intellectual” one. It’s loving the shape of their mental landscape and wanting to explore it.

    Sapiosexual is ableist and elitist on its face. As someone on the spectrum, we should see this delineation in definition as very important.

  8. Im not going to touch the ableism thing because I don’t really understand its application here. What I will say that I am a very recent late dx ASD woman who is both demi and sapio – I can’t have an emotional connection with someone until I’ve known them for a while, and they have to also stimulate and challenge me mentally.

    Which as a woman who is intelligent, well read, and with an extensive vocab, who doesn’t give a shit about sports, family, children, cars or any of the mainstream stuff, makes for quiet nights on the sofa with my cats most of the time.

    And I’m OK with that, I realised a while ago that was where my head was at, and I’ve come to terms with it. So I just wanted to say I HEAR YOU and I UNDERSTAND YOU.

  9. ableism is referring to an oppressive power dynamic generated by you (the general you) saying believing acting as though someone else is less than a human being than you because they dont have a specific set of cognitive, physical, or intellectual capabilities that you think would qualify them as “being normal” and then conflating “normal” with “good enough to be included as valuable worthy attractive” etc.

    sapiosexuality is no more ableist than an aspie preferring to hang out with other aspies because NTs simply seem too befuddling and complicated and take up way too much space and energy.

    i prefer to hang out with people i can feel some sort of understanding with and connection to and that includes people with whom i can have coherent conversations about string theory or quantum physics and entanglement or video games and gaming and the evolution of motherboards or social theory or any number of interests i am interested in.

    i dont really care to spend my romantic time with and am not attracted to people who dont get microsystems analyses and i dont see how thats ableist.

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