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The Autism Spectrum According to Autistic People

Autism neurodiversity
Autism neurodiversity

Sensory Sex Hacks for Autistics

man with a square jaw line and beard wearing a blindfold.

Having sex while Autistic can happen with lots of unexpected and disappointing sensory and social consequences. Unfortunately, people talk about sex as if it’s experienced the same way for everyone, but what feels good to many people is acutely torturous to some of us.

Even “liberated” literature that focuses on consent and normalizing what is often considered weird or even a kink or fetish does not begin to support people who have severe sensory processing issues. Unless a person understands sensory processing and their own unique sensory profile and needs, they will not be able to understand or enjoy being inside their bodies during sex.

For the purpose of this article, sex is loosely defined as sexual activity

Originally, this was a part of a longer article, but the article was really two totally different topics. So, I’ve divided it. The other article, on masking during sex, can be found here.

Intimacy Overwhelm

If you can’t read the aforementioned article right now, that’s fine. But you need to be familiar with the idea of “Intimacy overwhelm.” If you have trouble with eye contact, it might be because you experience intimacy much more intensely than most people. For that reason, the idea of someone hovering just over you, gazing lovingly at your naked body, wearing nothing but their vulnerability and a punch drunk smile full of expectant longing– well, that probably sounds like torture porn to you.

If eye contact is a subtle misting of intimacy, then sex as conceived by most people is more like a wide-open fire hose pointed point blank at your face.

This article seeks to help you mitigate for some of that intimacy overwhelm and other types of sensory overwhelm aroused by typical sexual encounters.

Don’t Traumatize Yourself

Risking sex without an understanding of your mind and body and what your needs are will result in negative associations with sex, and even complex trauma associated with sex. These sensory hacks are for people who have a similar sensory profile to me. It is my hope that someone with an opposite sensory profile will follow up as a response to this article with hacks that work for other sensory profiles.

Hopefully, these sex hacks will work for you, or at least help you to finding a starting point to troubleshooting your way through getting your intimacy needs met.

Sensory Hacks for Sensory Avoiders

1. It should take a long time.

Carve out some time, one or two hours. Approach touch a body part at a time. Start in a neutral location, like the calves or feet. Build. Don’t go straight for the genitals or most sensitive areas, but dance around them for a long time. Get close to them and move on. What you’re doing is building sensory pleasure pathways. Rushing in may be too intense, or they may not be able to enjoy it in the moment.

Don’t conceive of the foreplay a sense of duty to be fulfilled. It is a necessity to help your partner enjoy every sensory experience you have to offer.

Take as much time as is needed to make sure you are both desperate with desire before you go all in.

2. Dial it back.

Don’t insist that you are both doing all the things to each other at the same time. That’s overloading the circuits.

Even if they enjoy it, or can tolerate it in the moment, they might be up all night, suffering with overstimulation after it’s over. We can’t see and hear and feel and touch and taste and move with purpose all at once.

If we try, it’s an act. You don’t want to put on a brave face and just suffer through it out of a sense of guilt for not being a normal lover.

3. Build the soundscape.

To set the scene, there needs to be pacing without talking about pacing. You can do this with a curated playlist and a Bluetooth speaker. This will build a rhythm that grows and swells and pulsates.

The music sets a motif and has the added benefit of drowning out the libido-destroying mouth sounds that are imminent.

4. Control the scentscape.

Another sensory hack is candy. I personally like peppermint or cinnamon Altoids. These are extremely strong and have a mild analgesic effect. The peppermint oil can cause the brain to believe the skin is cold (or hot, with cinnamon), and it is somewhat numbing. They were originally marketed as a “stomach calmative.”

So, yes, Altoids. No more burning skin, no more smell of indigestion (or anything other than mint), and the scentscape has been righted.

5. Go with what’s familiar when arranging the setting.

Don’t just try something new in the moment when you’re arranging the setting. If you put new sheets on the bed, they might end up being a texture you hate. New fancy underwear might be tolerable at first, but once overstimulation sets in, they might become unbearable.

Don’t set your playlist to random or use the radio feature. You might end up with a new song, and either 100% of your brainpower is invested in hearing, or in feeling. You want to conserve processing resources.

If you’re processing auditory input that is unfamiliar, anything happening to your body is like someone pecking insistently on your shoulder while you’re trying to read an essay. You can either read, or attend to their concerns. You can’t divest your brain power to do both.

New scents, new tastes, new clothes, new anything may end up taking the center sensory stage over the focus that needs to be on what your body is experiencing.

If music isn’t your thing, you could wear ear defenders. A blindfold would also help to cut down on overstimulation, but that requires a lot of trust in your partner.

6. Know your intimacy empathy threshold.

Eye contact can be so intimate that it’s like staring into the sun with naked eyes. Sex can be like eye contact while sitting naked on the sun.

If you or your partner has a low intimacy empathy threshold, then that PG-13, missionary style, staring-lovingly-into-each-other’s-eyes, gentle lovemaking shit is not for you.

You’re going to need to depersonalize the experience (more on that below).

If you need more of the emotional connection, then you’re the opposite end of my sensory world and probably can get more useful advice from reading Cosmopolitan magazines. Sorry.

7. Depersonalize.

Intense intimacy empathy can be overwhelming. Extremely. If the thought of your partner hovering overall you, gazing longingly into your eyes, kissing you gently and deeply, whispering sweet nothings about their love for you fills you with more terror than going to the dentist for a root canal, then maybe you have too much intimacy empathy.

So instead, go to the dentist.

Or the doctor. The masseuse. Call a repair or maintenance technician. To be clear, I’m talking about role play. Here’s where a script can come in handy and some cognitive and creative effort in advance.

Yes, I mean a literal script. It doesn’t have to be followed to the letter or even written down, but it can give your partner with different intimacy thresholds an idea about how to give you the pleasure you’re seeking without needing to be intuitive about something that isn’t natural to them.

Choose a role that’s comfortable to them and attractive to you. You’re autistic, and if you have sensory issues with touch and intimacy, your brain has likely found other ways to be sexually attracted outside of what is typically considered sexy.

I’m most attracted to my partner when he’s fixing things or reading a book. He’s a deep thinker and a mechanical whiz who can fix lots of things, and those are sexy traits to me.

So, you might “call a repair man” or even just ask your partner about a book they’re reading.

Autistic people tend to hate surprises. That’s a big processing load all at once, and they like to plan ahead. Talking about ideas and getting in character in advance might help.

8. Power Imbalance.

Another way to depersonalize intimacy to work around empathy overwhelm is to give your sexual vignette a power imbalance.

If this is going to happen, it needs to be discussed in advance to make sure that both partners understand limits and boundaries and how to stop or slow things down.

A power imbalance doesn’t have to mean a full BDSM session with a leather-clad dominatrix carrying a whip, but can take more subtle forms. Roleplay wherein one person is an authority figure, like a professor, a boss, a manager, etc. can be a much less intense differential.

A power imbalance can help overcome choice paralysis, too. Autistic people, ADHD people, and people with PTSD may experience choice paralysis in life, generally, and moreso in the bedroom. This can mean that they are insecure about what they are supposed to be doing and therefore do nothing.

Handcuffs, being told not to move, or using other types of restraints may remove the burden of choice and help with intimacy empathy overwhelm; conversely, they may want to take charge. If the partner is restrained and blindfolded, the overstimulation (or even threat of it) from eye contact, wayward hands or mouths, or other overstimulating encroachment is reduced.

9. Study each other.

You might not know what you like or what your partner likes or would be open to doing, but there’s an app for that. Several, actually. Kindu is a couple’s app that has lots of questions that range from the most vanilla (holding hands) to the fetish end of X-rated.

You simply answer questions with a heart for yes, maybe for “open to try,” or an x for “not even on your birthday.” You can write your own questions, and your partner will not know if the questions came from you. It will only show your partner your matches.

This article lists other apps that can help you explore and broaden your sexual repertoire with your partner.

The Rundown, for Partners

Sex is not like fast food for everyone. Some people might be that flexible and available 24/7, but many aren’t–autistic or not. A partner is not a menu with a choice of Big Mac or McRib that you can have within minutes for minimal investment.

That might have been how it worked early in the relationship, but that’s not sustainable.

Life is complex and overwhelming, and it takes work to maintenance a relationship. If your partner is masking through sex to keep you happy, they won’t be able to maintain that mask forever. It’s going to make sex a traumatic experience for them.

It’s easy to blame the person with sensory issues for not being able to produce like McDonald’s, but you’re lying to yourself if you act like the only options are McDonald’s or starvation.

You can wait a day or a few days for your partner. You can invest in them outside of the bedroom to help them be ready to enjoy sex. You can spend time with them and help to build the anticipation and allow that part to be mutual.

You can help to manage their emotions and sense of worth so that they feel like you genuinely respect them and their body and mind as it is.

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