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Life

Sex on the Spectrum

I'm autistic, and here's how I learned to communicate my real desires.

Sex on the Spectrum
Illustration by Jade Schulz

Sex has to be one of the most multifaceted ways to communicate. A sexual encounter usually involves eye contact, touching, talking, feeling, stroking, moaning, groaning, breathing, thinking, penetrating, and pleasuring, and sometimes causing pain. It can feel goal-oriented, too, like a to-do list. We must do the other person as well as ourselves.

Sex can be more about power than intimacy, as we throw ourselves into a wrestling match and fight to the supreme release — orgasm. I wonder who's going to win?

I'm autistic, and when I was assessed, the process didn't give much away about how to navigate sex. It didn't go into the struggles or the various ways the body, heart, and mind can speak during sex. Given that autism is defined by a struggle to communicate, this was surprising.

Instead, I spent many hours and many dollars in a doctor's office being asked whether or not "certain fabrics were itchy" and "Do others consider you odd, or different?" and "Do you have a tendency to use phrases from movies in conversation?" There was no "How do you find being touched a tad too lightly whilst being penetrated at the same time?" or "Can you hold the gaze of the person you love, or not so much?" or "Do you cope OK with foreign body parts entering your body parts?"

In answer to the question that was never asked: It's been really hard to enjoy sex with anyone other than myself. It has often hurt and felt fast and overwhelming and full of sensations that were frightening, and I didn't know how to stop it or change it or share with the person sexing me that I needed it to be different.

The ways I explored pleasure and orgasm on my own were completely different from how I would treat them with a partner. When I looked at my sexual self, I saw two different people: one who was tender and slow and sensual and another who was more like a pincushion. On my own, I took my time and enjoyed myself, while sex with someone else seemed to eliminate the nuanced nature of my body and desires. I'd frequently be left feeling empty — with or without an orgasm.

I didn't know how to include myself in the act of sex, even if I knew how to let someone have sex with me. I watched enough porn and fantasized enough to know how to look like I was being sexed and sexing "correctly," yet it still felt like there was no room to genuinely express myself, or my preferences.

I asked my therapist whether there were meant to be differences between the way we pleasured ourselves and what we experienced with a partner, and he choked. I like my therapist because he doesn't say much, and, on this occasion, his eyelids fluttered and his mouth twitched before he shuffled in his seat and continued on the path of - perhaps rather wisely — not saying anything.

So I turned to books. Discussing sex with other women has often felt confusing and difficult because I have sensed shame and comparison operating beneath what I wanted to talk about. The words that came out of my mouth in order to deal with this, and to fit in, barely reflected the truth of my experiences. But immersion in a self-help book is always nourishing and informative, and I use the Internet to point me in the direction of what might be suitable.

I also find solace in a pilgrimage to my favorite bookstore in search of something that might offer guidance and reassurance. In this instance, I walked in and said, "Whatever it is that I need, show yourself!," and a copy of Diana Richardson's book The Heart of Tantric Sex found me. A few years prior to this, I had written a story about doing a Tantric-sex workshop because I'd read Osho's The Tantra Experience: Evolution Through Love, and I wanted to know more.

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As enlightening as the class was, learning about sex in a social setting isn't ideal for me because nothing in a social setting is ideal for me. So through Richardson's book, I was able to absorb Tantric principles in the privacy of my own home and gently incorporate them into life and sex with my partner, which worked miracles.

In Tantra, sex is life and life is sex. It encourages us to care for our sensitivities rather than ignore them, and the little things — which are actually big things — are revered. The orgasm is seen as an enjoyable, non-compulsory byproduct, and all the pressure is taken off of it. There is no striving in Tantra. It's about conscious sensory stimulation, pacing, breathing, eye contact, and presence. All of which can be terrifying, because even the most menial social exchange requires a huge amount of mental effort. My phone rings, and my whole body goes into shock, before I feel angry that someone had the audacity to call me — Don't they know that I'm autistic?! — before I fret about whom it might be and what I might be expected to say. And, of course, the reaction is only intensified if that person is that person is standing in front of me, naked, with all their needs and eyes and feelings.

It took a while to let go of the orgasm, because aiming for and chasing it gave sex a structure. Without it, the experience seemed so unlimited and expansive. I mean, how are we supposed to know if we're doing sex right without the orgasm?

Well, Tantra says sex is about "doing" nothing. It's an opportunity to slow down and investigate an expanse, rather than shut it off, which I never felt like I had permission to do with a partner. Tantra gave me that permission, and I began to harmonize the different parts of my sexual self and get clearer on what I wanted to communicate through sex — verbally and nonverbally. I started to feel safe enough to surrender to the different sensations and look into my partner's eyes.

There was such security in knowing that the experience didn't have to be about rushing, or meeting expectations. It was about us.

Madeleine Ryan is a freelance writer based in Australia. She is currently working on a novel, and her website can be viewed here.