Greetings earthlings! 🙂
As we are approaching Valentines Day, I thought it would be interesting to explore the romantic side of autism a little bit.
When it comes to romance and the spectrum, this is what most people think of:
Prior to my diagnosis, I too would have pictured this scene.
Asexuality, or lack of sexual attraction/interest, is often associated with autism. However, whilst asexuality occurs more frequently in the autistic community compared with the neurotypical population, one size does NOT fit all.
Stereotype Alert!!! The majority of people with autism are not asexual- we want to experience love just as much as the next person!
In fact, studies have shown no marked differences in sexual interests and behaviours when compared with neurotypicals…we’re just a little bit worse at the whole initiation/communication side of relationships! 😛
Our social struggles can make it quite difficult to convey our intentions and feelings in romantic situations. As previously discussed (see empathy), we struggle to identify our own emotions to ourselves, let alone convey them to another person!
According to Asperger’s expert Tony Attwood, there is a tendency among adolescents with AS to seek out the relationship advice we are lacking from rather unreliable sources… Males tend to derive their information from pornography, while girls turn to soaps, rom-coms and books, failing to recognize that these works are not reflective of the real world.
You may think that surely we would be able to tell fact from fiction…. buuuutttt, this is a fairly accurate description. I’ve be been burned this way in the past! Let’s just say that I attempted to apply something I read in a book to reality…and it backfired…spectacularly! 😛
In addition to these social struggles, the sensation of touch can also be an issue for many people with autism in romantic entanglements. Studies have shown that gene mutations associated with autism can cause hypersensitivity to the sensation of touch. As a result, we oftentimes shy away from physical contact, which can give the impression of romantic indifference.
Advice for friends, family & significant others: If we brush off your touch, it’s generally nothing personal. Just be patient. We can learn to condition ourselves to touch over time 🙂
In my own experience, trust can be especially important when it comes to physical intimacies.
Thankfully, I’m not particularly sensitive to touch, but I don’t like people I don’t trust having physical contact with me.
For example, contrary to common autism stereotypes, I very much enjoy a nice hug- but only if I trust/feel comfortable around that person.
I’ve always felt that hugs are an intimate experience, so for me to hug someone that I don’t like or trust feels wrong. Over time I’ve conditioned myself to accept unwanted hugs to uphold social etiquette, but my heart’s not in the action.
Many people with autism have issues with trust. In a world that doesn’t make sense , it can be very hard to discern what is trustworthy from what is not. Where black and white thinking is concerned, one bad experience can ruin your trust in an instant.
But ruins can be rebuilt- it just takes a little bit of time 🙂
Considering all these challenges that we face in the pursuit of love, might there be any underlying biological factors contributing to our romantic ineptitude?
Few studies have explored sexuality and relationships in autism, however, from my reading of the research one hormone stands out from the crowd- oxytocin.
Oxytocin, also known as the ‘love’ or ‘cuddle’ hormone, has been linked to autism in a number of studies. Research has shown that levels of oxytocin are dysregulated in individuals with autism.
This is basically a fancy science term meaning that our oxytocin levels are out of sync! 😛 😉
Oxytocin is thought to contribute to a human’s ability to effectively socialize. For example, studies correlate oxytocin levels to degree of social functioning where low oxytocin levels are linked with diminished social functioning and high oxytocin concentrations are associated with augmented social functioning.
Evidence suggests that levels are lower in cases of autism, with the lowest concentrations in low functioning forms and higher concentrations in high functioning cases.
Oxytocin is perhaps best known for it’s role in the formation of emotional bonds, as it is released when we cuddle up to or bond socially with a person. Research suggests that it even plays an important role in emotional bonding with man’s best friend, with levels rising in both owner and pet after several minutes of stroking! 🙂
Oxytocin has further been shown to increase trust in humans, so it stands to reason that lower oxytocin levels present in autism can make it harder to trust, interact with and connect with a person romantically.
Moreover, recent studies indicate that oxytocin also plays an important role in the strengthening of negative social memories. It appears that following a stressful social encounter, such as bullying or romantic rejection, oxytocin activates a part of the brain which causes the memory to intensify, promoting anxiety and fear in similar situations.
Seeing as oxytocin is dysregulated, this could also explain why autists find romantic situations difficult. I’ve certainly found that previous failures in this area have made me quite hesitant to reveal my feelings to guys for fear of reliving those moments!
Autism, like love, is truly complicated 😛
In keeping with my Valentine’s theme, I’ll discuss love and the spectrum in greater detail on Monday! 🙂