Different in More Ways than One: Autism Spectrum, NVLD, Asexuality, and Intersectionality

Despite the lingering misconceptions and prejudices, it is well-known that neurodiverse individuals can be just as sexual as their neurotypical counterparts. Many people on the spectrum and with NVLD enjoy having multiple partners or monogamous sexual relationships. However, not only has a greater sexual diversity been documented within the autistic population, but some research also indicates that asexuality is more common (Stokes, 2017). While the reasons for this phenomenon are unknown, it is worthwhile to consider its implications for clinical practice, and how therapists can help those with these intersectional and often marginalized identities to examine their etiology and significance. Although the connection between asexuality and NVLD is less well-known, I was struck by how many blogs mentioned personal experience with both. The link between sensory sensitivity and the development of a sexual identity is unknown, but the connection can certainly exist for some. As therapists, we should be aware of the possible link, while also being mindful not to prescribe it universally. Neurodiverse asexual individuals may feel that their experiences fall outside of multiple societal expectations, sometimes facing stigma and ignorance on a daily basis. However, by reclaiming an empowering perspective on their identities, finding community, and discovering intimacy on their owns terms, asexual and neurodiverse people can break free from isolation and change the narrative about the meaning of their intersectional identities.

 Our sexualities can evolve from experience. Asexuality is also no longer exclusively defined as being a lack of sexual attraction. In fact, many asexual people acknowledge a sex drive, and identities that fall onto the asexual spectrum include lithosexuality, or someone who is attracted to others that one does not want it reciprocated (Live Love LGBTQ+, 2017). Therefore, if some asexual individuals have a drive, but still do not wish to engage in sexual contact, it may be worthwhile to examine in therapy if there is a casual link between their sensory discomfort and the development of asexuality. Suffice it to say that I am not implying that this orientation is nothing more than a by-product of sensory sensitivity; sexuality is a completely valid orientation. Nevertheless, I do believe that a dislike or discomfort with physical touch may be correlated with the development of asexuality. The Swedish researcher on autism Leif Elkblad draws an interesting conclusion in one of his studies when he says that “Asexual self-identification appears to have two different causes. The usual meaning of asexuality as a lack of sexual interest or desire dominated in the neurotypical population, while in the neuro diverse population, a phenotype based on disgust for typical sexual behavior dominated” (Ekblad, 2018). He goes on to state that repulsion that began during the late teenage years frequently led to a loss of sexual attraction later on. Understanding the link between sensory sensitivity, repulsion, and a loss of sexual desire can be a validating experience and worthwhile therapeutic endeavor for some neuro-diverse individuals.

Some neurodiverse individuals may express confusion as to whether or not their lack of interest in sex stems from sensory sensitivity or a general lack of sexual desire. It can be helpful in therapy to unravel whether it could be more one or the other, or perhaps a combination of both. Regardless of how they evolved, stressing that these identities are legitimate and worthwhile is a validating experience for many.  I think it is also important to recognize that one study did indicate that children on the autism spectrum are less likely to “cave to peer pressure” (Ziegenhorn, ND). A similar correlation may be true for adults and children with NVLD. The reality is that neurodiversity may also come with some positive attributes, including the ability to identify one’s authentic sexual identity. Therefore, openly recognizing and embracing their asexuality, despite its stigma, may be a strong attribute for some individuals on the autism spectrum and with NVLD.

Although neurodiverse asexual individuals may be independently minded, they also crave relationships and community. However, this can be hard to find when you are outside of society’s norms in multiple areas. There are currently different communities available for the asexual and autistic populations, but those whose identities lie in both may find less clearly demarcated spaces for them to explore their intersectionality. However, AVEN (Asexual Visibility & Education Network) has a section dedicated to intersectionality, in which participants on forums throughout the internet mention being both asexual and neurodiverse. By being open about the impact of intersectionality in either of these two spaces, some may begin find others who share their experiences. In regard to relationships, many asexual neurodiverse individuals may enjoy certain kinds of touch and connection, such as touch and hugging, while others simply like to lie in bed with their partners. These manifestations of intimate contact are no less valid than sexual experiences. It can be a challenge for some neurodiverse asexual individuals to find partners who truly understand their needs. However, the approach that one takes to describing one’s experience can make a significant difference. For example, sharing why certain forms of physical contact feel better than others can help your partner to identify what kinds of physical intimacy feel best for both of you.

Exploring intersectional can be a validating experience for neurodiverse asexual individuals. It can also shed light on how sensory sensitivity might be related to the development of sexual repulsion. However, as stated by Leif Elkbald, more research needs to be done (Ekblad, 2018). Nevertheless, asexual and neurodiverse individuals can begin to make connections by discussing their intersectional identities in asexual and neurodiverse communities. Even in romantic relationships, understanding what kinds of physical touch one needs, and communicating this to a potential partner, can be an important step towards building intimacy. When asexual neurodiverse individuals accept and understand their intersectional identities, examine the links between the two, and develop an empowering mindset in advocating for what they need in intimacy and the community. They can achieve a meaningful life despite society’s stigmatizations and misunderstandings.  

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