Sensory issues can be the root of much heartbreak in the sexual dynamics of a marital relationship between a neurotypical wife and her ASD husband.
Neurotypical wives often come to me with a deep sense of shame, despair and sorrow that they have not had sex with their autistic husbands in years. Some will share that kissing no longer happens either, and that the affection is limited to hugs or basic pecks on the cheek. She is heartbroken by the rejection, and lost in confusion as to how this happened. Early on in their dating life, sex seemed amazing and connected. How could it have been so great, and now – he avoids it? Or perhaps due to religious beliefs, the couple waited until after marriage to be physically intimate. Despite so much anticipation while dating, their sex life never really went past the awkward stage, and then quickly became very infrequent.
Aside from her shame at feeling undesired by her husband, the neurotypical wife feels very isolated in her experience. Most of her friends talk about their husbands wanting more sex, not less. She certainly does not know anyone who is routinely rejected by her husband, and after exhaustively trying to discuss it, entice him or otherwise change course – the NT wife turns inward, blaming herself. He must not be attracted to her anymore. right? Additionally, perhaps the NT wife has discovered that her ASD husband is an avid porn user while avoiding sex with her. Her heart is broken at the betrayal that he would rather deal with his sexual energy in a way that excludes her, despite the begging and pleading for intimacy with him. It is soul-crushing to realize that he certainly does have a sex drive, it just isn’t one that craves her. (More about this in a follow-up post.)
While many ASD marriages between a neurotypical partner and autistic spouse are sexless, sometimes it is present but infrequent. Many NT women have shared with me that sex can sometimes be mired in rituals and rules. He may require that she she shower and dry her hair before sex, each and every time, immediately prior to their intimacy. Only one sexual position is permitted. His eyes might be tightly shut the entire time. Activities happen in a certain sequence. She must have a towel underneath her at all times. After the act is finished, he hops up and gets in the shower alone. There is no afterglow of cuddling or closeness. Why does her hair have to be dry? Why is he worried about the bed being damp? Why is only one position acceptable?
It may seem arbitrary, but the sensory input of wet hair is too overwhelming, and the same situation with the sheets. Some ASD men have difficulty conceptualizing and feeling their bodies in space, due to sensory integration issues. A sexual position that provides too much pressure, or not enough, during intercourse can impact arousal and ability to orgasm. The result is an inflexible lovemaking routine that is confusing for the NT wife (and sometimes feels shameful to the ASD husband, who understands to some degree that she is not pleased and his preferences differ from other men).
It’s helpful for the neurotypical wife to think about sex in the manner their ASD partner experiences it, as we can begin to see that his avoidance of sex is not personal toward her. (This does not minimize the hurt, harm, or impact of deprivation.) Understanding that taste, touch, scents and sounds can be engulfing for him helps her to stop turning the blame inward for a lack of marital intimacy. It is not her fault that body fluid is repellant to him, and nor is it his fault that he can’t handle it. Sexual aids like oil or lube or vibrating toys might bring sensations he doesn’t enjoy. It’s important to note that autists often experience sensory input to a much greater or lesser degree than neurotypicals – what feels like a nice backrub to her might feel like being pummeled to him.
Articulating these sensitivities can be challenging for the autistic husband. He might be very distracted by negative sensory input and have difficulty maintaining an erection. He may also know that reading her sexual responses and cues is a struggle for him, which adds to his anxiety level that is already high due to the overwhelm of sensory input.
As to why sex was perhaps quite satisfying and more flexible in the beginning of the relationship – it seems that the hyper-focus of his girlfriend or wife being a consuming special interest can override the sensory engulfment of sex. As the special interest or “newness” starts to wear off the relationship, he may be much more distracted by the sensory difficulties. Learning this, and in combination with what is often his diminishing interest in her beyond sex as well, can feel very devastating for the NT wife. It feels like a bait and switch, even though the ASD husband was likely unaware of why his sensory difficulties abated early on in their relationship. As I affirm to wives repeatedly, his good intention does not minimize the harmful impact to her.
Occasionally, I will hear that a neurotypical wife is drowning in her husband’s sexual needs. His desire for it is daily, if not multiple times a day. She might be puking from the stomach flu, but he’s still sure to tell her that he really needs sex tonight. She feels overwhelmed by his expectations and inability to read when it’s appropriate or not to be requesting sexual time with her. He tells her that sex feels really good and calms him down. In this case, sex is a sensory pleasure and something he wants to experience repeatedly, often for the calming effect it has on him.
The impact of sensory deluge is very important for the neurotypical wife to conceptualize, and for the ASD husband to begin recognizing within himself. Understanding his struggle helps the neurotypical wife de-personalize the absence of sex. His avoidance of intimacy is about his sensory issues, not a reflection of her. While his difficulties do not make her sexual deprivation acceptable, it at least offers explanation as to why she is being subjected to his avoidance. If the ASD husband is able to recognize his sensory overwhelm, problem-solving can begin happening and sexual intimacy can be potentially restored.