When autistic people commit sexual crimes

For years, Nick Dubin couldn’t bring himself to say the word ‘gay,’ but part of him wondered: Was he gay? Dubin has autism. And growing up in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan, he had been mercilessly taunted by his peers, some of whom had called him gay simply because he was different.

But what if he actually was homosexual? As an adult, Dubin found some men attractive, and his attempts at dating women had not gone well. To help him understand his sexuality, Dubin recalls, a therapist he was seeing in 2010 suggested he buy a few adult pornography magazines. Dubin is soft-spoken and comes across as earnest, and he took the therapist’s advice seriously. He drove to a seedy part of the city and purchased a handful of magazines. He also began looking at pornography on the internet. He recalls being surprised that it was free and so easy to find. Soon he was bombarded with pop-up ads for porn sites. Some of the ads he clicked on led to sites with pictures of minors, which he downloaded to his computer.

At the time, Dubin was 33 and had built an impressive career as an autism advocate. He had a doctorate in psychology and was working as a consultant in a nearby school for autistic students. By all appearances, he was someone who should have known that child pornography is wrong. “This is what’s often confusing to people who have not dealt with autism spectrum [disorder] before,” Lynda Geller, a New York City-based psychologist and autism specialist, said at a conference on the topic in Rochester, Michigan, in May. “They see before them someone that they’re talking with who seems quite bright, and yet whose social intelligence is quite different than their intellectual intelligence.”

That disconnect seemed to hold true for Dubin. One test that estimates a person’s social age revealed that he functions as a 7- to 11-year-old child. In someone with such a young social age, Geller says, the ages of children in photographs may not register as they would for a typical adult. Dubin says he has never had sexual feelings about children, and it had never occurred to him that looking at naked pictures of minors is against the law: “I had no concept of how something I was doing in the privacy of my home without interacting with anyone could be breaking the law,” he says.

This grave miscalculation changed his life forever.

Later that year, just after dawn one Wednesday, a dozen agents from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) forced open the door of his apartment. They handcuffed him and told him they had a search warrant. Dubin thought at first that the men were from the fire department. He asked them repeatedly why they were there. “You want to tell us about something on your computer?” one agent finally said. Dubin was arrested and ultimately convicted for possessing child pornography.

Dubin is one of many autistic individuals who have become embroiled in the criminal justice system because of their sexual behavior. Some, like Dubin, have found themselves in legal trouble for viewing or collecting child pornography, whereas others have been charged with stalking, masturbating in public, harassment or sexual assault. Some are serving prison sentences. And hundreds, if not thousands — the numbers are impossible to pin down — including Dubin, have become registered sex offenders, a status that can prevent them from receiving state services and finding jobs for the rest of their lives.

Many of these autistic people may have engaged in sexual behaviors without understanding the implications of their actions or the law. People on the spectrum often have problems with social communication, awareness and experience. That, coupled with other hallmark traits associated with autism — including intense interests and repetitive behaviors, as well as sensory differences — can unwittingly cause problems when they start dating or exploring their sexuality.

For these reasons, some experts are calling for a change in how the criminal justice system treats autistic people. The 2018 sentencing guidelines for U.S. courts directly acknowledge that shorter sentences may be warranted when a defendant’s mental capacity contributes substantially to the commission of the offense. But it is not clear how that comes into play for people on the spectrum.

“There should be an escape from sex-offender registration for those with autism spectrum disorder who are first offenders with no history of inappropriate contact with children,” says Mark Mahoney, a lawyer familiar with Dubin’s case. Some studies show that registration laws generally do not have the effect of deterring sexual offenses — in part because most sex crimes are committed by relatives and acquaintances, not by strangers. And registration can have particularly devastating effects on autistic people’s lives: It further isolates and stigmatizes them, and also limits their access to services and benefits.

“I am not the type of person who would ever intentionally harm another human being,” Dubin says. His parents, lawyers and therapists agree.

In addition to legal reform, people on the spectrum would also benefit from sex education, Dubin and others say. Autistic people are much less likely than their neurotypical peers to receive any kind of sex education, either at school or at home, according to one 2015 study. And without education, sexual rules — often unspoken and riddled with nuance — can be among the most difficult to parse. “People on the autism spectrum are notoriously law-abiding rule followers,” Geller said at the conference in May. But “if they don’t know a rule, they don’t follow it.”

Lack of experience:

One common and pernicious myth about autism is that it renders people asexual and unemotional, with no need for intimacy; in fact, many autistic people crave closeness, even if they struggle to foster it. In a study published in May, researchers interviewed 232 teenagers and adults on the spectrum, as well as 227 neurotypical individuals, and found that the participants with autism were just as interested in having romantic and sexual relationships as everyone else. “Despite stereotypes that autistic people do not want friendships or relationships, many do,” says Laura Graham Holmes, a clinical psychologist at the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute in Philadelphia.

Yet autistic adolescent boys are less likely than their typical peers to have had sexual experiences with a partner, according to a 2016 study. And in a small study published in April, only 10 of 27 autistic adolescents and young adults interviewed said they had had any relationship experience; 7 of those 10 indicated that their relationships had been unhealthy or confusing. After Dubin graduated from college with a degree in communications in 2000, his friends started getting married, he recalls — but he hadn’t yet gone on a single date. In 2004, when he was 27, Dubin was formally diagnosed with autism, although his parents had noticed social differences from a young age.

When he finally did start dating via a web service, he didn’t have much success. He would sometimes take women out and then never hear from them again; one woman explained that she didn’t like that he preferred exchanging emails to talking with her on the phone. (Many autistic people prefer to communicate via email, in part because it gives them more time to think about and craft their responses, according to a 2016 study.)

People on the spectrum can also find courtship signals and expectations difficult to pick up on, says Jessica Penwell Barnett, a sociologist at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, who studies sexuality among people with disabilities. She recounts the story of one autistic man who told her about a disastrous date: A woman had asked him to spend the night with her. He agreed, but the following morning she was clearly irritated, and he could not understand why. He had not realized, as a neurotypical friend explained to him the next day, that she had probably expected him not only to sleep there but also to initiate sex — something he happily would have done if he had only known.

Autistic people “often don’t get cues that neurotypical people think that they’re sending them, because they’re not clear and direct,” Barnett says. That makes flirting and asking others out difficult to master. “[They] are more likely to do things like follow a person around rather than walk up and initiate a conversation.”

“There should be an escape from sex-offender registration for those with autism spectrum disorder who are first offenders.” Mark Mahoney

The converse is also true. People with autism may not always get the message that someone is signaling disinterest — by ignoring their phone calls or by saying they’re too busy to go out. If they miss these subtle hints, they may come across as creepy or persistent, and perhaps be accused of stalking or harassment: They often pursue romantic interests for much longer than others do, even after the object of their affection rejects them, according to one 2007 study.

They are also more likely than typical people to be especially sensitive to sensory information or to seek more stimulation; this, too, can lead to inappropriate behavior. Dubin, for instance, sought tactile stimulation from a young age. He liked to touch people on the head because he liked the feeling of their hair; only when he got older did he learn it was inappropriate. These kinds of sensory issues contribute to offending behavior, according to a small unpublished study presented at this year’s annual meeting of the International Society for Autism Research.

The actions of autistic people can be interpreted as sexual even when they are not intended that way — a phenomenon sometimes referred to as ‘counterfeit deviance.’ Psychologist Gary Mesibov recalls one striking case from decades ago in which a woman in North Carolina accused a young autistic man of stalking her; he said his intention had instead been to protect her. He had read about sexual assaults in the local newspaper and had become worried for her safety. “He decided that he needed to watch over her,” says Mesibov, former director of the TEACCH Autism Program at the University of North Carolina, who consulted on the case. The man began following the woman on her walk home from work in the evenings and waiting outside her home in the mornings.

The story illustrates the importance of ‘theory of mind’ — the ability to put oneself in another person’s shoes — in modulating sexual behavior. Many autistic individuals have trouble with this skill. With better skills, this young man might have realized that his behavior came across as threatening — and terrifying — to the woman he had been following.

Dubin says his own problems with theory of mind meant he never considered how the children in the pornographic images he viewed got there or whether they might have been abused. (None of the photos he viewed showed abuse, he says.) At the Rochester conference in May, Mahoney explained that when most people see child pornography, “they’re seeing it with this wealth of social understanding that’s developed over their entire life, of thousands of social interactions, thousands of cues as to what’s acceptable or not to society.” But autistic people may not share this socialized perspective; they might zero in on body parts and literally “not see the social context of a photograph.” Once his therapist explained to Dubin the violence inherent in the production of child pornography, Dubin says he was mortified. “I truly was blind to the harm I was causing,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t causing harm, and I sincerely wish I could turn back time and do better with the information I have now.”

Missing information:

The neurological differences and communication problems that underpin autism are not the only potential contributors to inappropriate sexual behavior. Most typical individuals learn appropriate courtship behavior from their peers, but many autistic people don’t have meaningful friendships growing up. “They don’t have anybody to talk to in the locker room,” says Brian Kelmar, co-founder of the nonprofit Legal Reform for People Intellectually and Developmentally Disabled, based in Richmond, Virginia.

That lack of knowledge landed Kelmar’s autistic son ‘Eric’ (his real name is being withheld to protect his privacy) in trouble in 2010 after he began receiving sexual texts from a girl several years younger than him. At the time, Eric didn’t understand the implications of her texts and agreed to meet her, thinking he had made a new friend. The girl initiated oral sex, Kelmar says, at which point Eric — who was extremely sensitive to touch — froze and asked her to stop. They parted ways. That night, however, police showed up at Kelmar’s front door and arrested his son for sexually assaulting a minor. Eric didn’t spend time in prison, but he was added to the sex offender registry indefinitely. “If it were not for his age and gender, he would be regarded as the victim,” says Mahoney, who is familiar with the case.

Sex education might have helped Kelmar’s son, but it is “deplorably absent” for young people on the spectrum, sociologist Barnett says. In a 2014 survey, less than half as many autistic adults as controls said their parents and teachers had talked to them about sex. “A lot of folks on the spectrum are in secluded classrooms, which very often never offered any form of sexuality education,” Barnett says. And often, “parents feel that sexuality, and therefore sexuality education, are inappropriate for their autistic child.”

To counteract the problem, the Organization for Autism Research in May published an online sex-education module for autistic people 15 years old and up. Kelmar is also introducing legislation in Virginia that would require sex education for students with intellectual disabilities. And at last year’s meeting of the International Society for Autism Research, researchers and autism advocates met to develop a research agenda around sexuality and romantic relationships, and to better understand what autistic people need in terms of support and education.

Dubin also didn’t have much sex education — nor did he learn much from his peers. As he recalls, he was “friendless from middle school on”: He went home every day for lunch because he never had anyone to sit with in the school cafeteria; without friends, it was much more difficult for him to learn the basics of flirting, dating and sex, and to discuss burgeoning feelings about his sexuality. “I don’t say this to blame my autism or make excuses,” Dubin says, but if he had had “same-age friends to confide my thoughts and feelings to, it would have made a difference.” Starved of healthy social interactions, Holmes says, people on the spectrum often end up learning sexual scripts and norms “from less credible sources like media — which depicts all kinds of unhealthy relationship behavior — or pornography.”

Aside from providing information, pornography can be attractive to autistic teenagers and young adults for another reason: Its networks provide them with a social outlet, making them feel liked and accepted. Mesibov once worked with a 15-year-old autistic boy who went to prison for sharing child pornography. The boy had been encouraged by online predators to join child porn chat rooms, where he felt appreciated and included. “They’re not only sexually frustrated, but they’re socially frustrated,” Mesibov says. In chat rooms, “they’re not just getting hooked on looking at more pictures, but they’re getting hooked on a social interaction.”

Life after crime:

The day after Dubin’s apartment was raided, he was formally charged in a Detroit courthouse and an electronic tether was bound to his ankle to record his every movement while he awaited trial. He was required to stay in his apartment between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. every day and was ordered to attend a weekly sex-offender therapy group. The expectations of group therapy — having to engage socially and share personal details with strangers who were also sex offenders — made him extremely anxious, and the information he got from the group was confusing, too. According to Dubin, the group leader told him that by being open and honest, he could shorten his sentence, but privately, people in the group told him that anything he said could be used against him in court.

Dubin’s father, a lawyer, marshaled an impressive defense team, including former prosecutor Alan Gershel, chief of the criminal justice division at the U.S. Attorney’s office in Detroit from 1989 to 2008. The defense team requested a pretrial diversion — meaning Dubin’s criminal charges would be dropped and he would instead undergo what is typically an 18-month-long period of supervision by the U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services System. The prosecution refused.

The prosecution requested an independent evaluation of Dubin’s mental health. The independent forensic psychologist concluded that Dubin was not likely to be a threat to children and recommended against “impediments,” such as sex offender registration, that might “limit [Dubin’s] access to social support and opportunities for social learning.” Even so, Dubin was convicted of a felony. He did not go to prison but was required to register as a sex offender.

Life on the sex offender registry is never easy, but it can be especially difficult for someone on the spectrum. “It destroys these kids’ lives,” Kelmar says. First, the registry comes with residence restrictions — in some states, offenders cannot live within 1,000 feet of a school or places where children congregate. Erin Comartin, associate professor of social work at Wayne State University in Detroit, once calculated that there were only two homes in all of Ferndale, Michigan, a suburb near where Dubin resides, in which sex offenders are legally allowed to live. Because many autistic people live with their parents, these residency requirements often mean the entire family is forced to move. “It takes over their families, it takes over their lives,” Comartin said at the Rochester conference.

The registry also makes it more difficult for people with autism to get jobs than it already is. Yet at the same time, anyone on the sex offender registry is ineligible for ‘Section 8’ housing assistance, which subsidizes housing costs for people who make less than a certain income.

“I truly was blind to the harm I was causing. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t causing harm, and I sincerely wish I could turn back time and do better with the information I have now.” Nick Dubin

In what may be the worst possible outcome, autistic sex offenders can also end up in prison. Sentences for child pornography have skyrocketed in recent years; they averaged 34 months in 2004, but 66 months in 2013. And for people on the spectrum, long spells in prison can be more difficult because of their sensitivities to light and sound, and the social demands of sharing a prison cell, according to “The Science of Evil,” a 2011 book by Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the University of Cambridge’s Autism Research Centre. Putting someone with autism behind bars is like “dropping a wheelchair-bound individual with physical disabilities into a swimming pool and expecting them to cope,” he wrote.

At the conference, a man named Tom, who asked to be referred to by his first name only, choked up when describing the day he had had to drive his autistic son to prison after a child pornography conviction. “It’s way too painful for me to tell you what I was feeling inside,” he said. “After dropping off my son at the gates of prison, I drove a few miles away, pulled off the road and cried like I’ve never cried before in my life.”

Mahoney says one of his autistic clients, who spent nearly two-and-a-half years in prison for possessing child pornography, has attempted suicide several times since he was released. “He cannot get work, he cannot get services, he cannot get [Section 8 housing choice] vouchers for living expenses, they will not let him in temple,” Mahoney says. The client feels, Mahoney says, like “he has nothing to live for except his dog.”

Mahoney and others argue that autistic people who are first-time sex offenders and have had no inappropriate contact with children should not spend time in prison or be put on the registry. A few researchers and organizations, including the Organization for Autism Research and the Asperger/Autism Network, have co-signed a set of guidelines that include this recommendation. And they are making progress on this front. At the Rochester conference, Mahoney said there were eight cases he knew of in federal courts in which prosecutors had allowed individuals on the spectrum to plead guilty to offenses without requiring prison time or registration, or had agreed to pretrial diversions.

When evaluating cases, “there should be an assessment of contributing factors, such as co-occurring conditions, and a focus on remediation: education on laws, treatment for executive impairments, treatment for co-occurring conditions, and cognitive behavioral therapy focused on offending behaviors,” Holmes says.

Autistic people should also be exempt from the usual treatments for sex offenders, Mahoney and others say. These treatments typically involve rehabilitating deviant thoughts and correcting aberrant beliefs about sexuality — but what people on the spectrum need instead is basic information about what is appropriate and what is not, which they may never have been given before. “What we recommend is that the [sex] education happen early and that it be lifelong,” Barnett says.

Dubin, now 42, has had ongoing therapy and education, and has spent the past nine years trying to atone for his mistakes. In 2014, he co-wrote “The Autism Spectrum, Sexuality and the Law,” which tells his life story and provides information and advice for parents, psychologists and criminal-justice professionals. He also regularly speaks at conferences about autism, sex education and sexuality — he has realized that he is, in fact, gay — hoping to help other autistic people understand the consequences and moral implications of poor decisions like his own: “I’ve spent every day of my life since 2010 thinking about that.”

Corrections

This article has been revised. The original incorrectly stated that Nick Dubin views children and teenagers as his peers.

Originally published on Spectrum

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Adolescents with autism need access to better sex education

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Intimacy is part of being human. There are well-documented benefits to positive relationships, from emotional security to good mental health1. Those who want relationships and can’t develop them face low self-esteem, depression, loneliness and isolation from the wider society2.

For adolescents, learning how to navigate sex and sexuality can be a minefield. How do you figure out the nuances of sexuality without experience? How do you approach a potential partner? And once you do, how do you communicate with him or her?

This path is especially fraught for adolescents with autism. For example, people with autism tend to report higher levels of sexual abuse and sexual exploitation than their neurotypical peers3. And yet there is a gap between what these young people need and what schools provide. According to a 2012 study, adolescents with autism know less about sex than do their peers and have less access to sex education4.

My team of researchers and I are documenting the experiences of adolescents with autism in relation to sex, sexuality and their schools’ sex education requirements. Our research suggests schools should provide sex education tailored to the needs of young people with autism.

These classes should include both the standard fare — from human development to safe sex — and additional instruction on topics such as how teens can express themselves to their potential partners and how to decode innuendos and other language used to describe sex. This education is vital to ensure that these adolescents can approach relationships in a way that is safe, confident and healthy.

Role play:

One common misconception about individuals with autism is that they prefer to be alone. My research suggests this simply isn’t true.

In an ongoing study, for example, my team conducted interviews related to sex and relationships with 40 adults with autism. Only three expressed ambivalence about relationships, mostly due to worries about coping with the needs of another person. Nearly half of the respondents had not yet had a relationship but expressed a strong desire for one.

Despite the desire to form relationships, this group expressed limited knowledge about how they would meet someone or show their interest. They found the idea of going out to a pub or club frightening, and socializing with groups of people provoked high anxiety. Some of them expressed a disdain for small talk, and others admitted they had little idea of how to engage in general conversation. They also found the use of dating apps unappealing and said they thought there was an inherent danger in meeting strangers.

Sex education could help these individuals feel confident in approaching others using role-play. For example, they could use techniques created by the late Augusto Boal, a Brazilian theater director who created plays in which audiences could participate.

In the context of sex education, an actor would play the part of the individual with autism and re-create one of that person’s real-life experiences, such as trying to talk to someone new in a bar. The individual with autism would then give the actor new directions — such as “What if I offer to buy her a drink?” — allowing the person with autism to try out many approaches, and witness potential consequences, in a safe environment.

Advice network:

Although instructors may help with some aspects of communication, it’s profoundly difficult to teach someone how to read the intentions and desires of others. Most teenagers rely on peers to work through some of these social complexities.

Teens get feedback from their peers on how to interact, meet new people and gauge the appropriateness of a relationship. Teens with autism struggle with close relationships, but sex education classes could facilitate that learning.

Our research suggests that they desire this guidance. For example, one individual in our study commented that schools should provide students with the “skills on how to find the right sort of partner.” To accomplish this goal, a school could provide an advice network, including regular group meetings in which young people with autism share and reflect upon their experiences. Social networking could extend this support.

For most adolescents, peers also fill in gaps such as helping to define sexual slang. In our study, another participant commented that hearing “dirty talk” from other students made her feel left behind. She was also unsure how to decode the words she heard, and said her school should explain what people might say in a sexual context and what these terms mean. With this context, she could decide to get involved or not.

Moderated discussions in a peer network could help address such slang and provide a safe space for students to ask questions about unfamiliar words.

Different sexualities:

To be effective, sex education in schools must take into consideration that some individuals with autism do not conform to traditional sex roles. When we interviewed 40 young adults with autism as part of an ongoing study, we found that 20 percent identified as gay or bisexual — more than is reported in national surveys of the general population. Gender fluidity may also be more common in individuals with autism: In a study we conducted this year (but is not yet published), we found an unusually high incidence of autism and autism traits in individuals who identify as transsexual or non-binary.

Despite these high numbers, some people with autism find it hard to accept different sexualities. As one male participant explained: “I have a rigid way of seeing the world, and this prevented me from accepting my sexuality. I sort of denied it to myself because I have very concrete black-and-white thinking and it didn’t quite fit in.” This early inability to accept his sexuality and identify as a gay man led to severe depression and admittance to a psychiatric ward.

In some ways, people with autism may even fall outside the ever-expanding range of sexual identities we see today, such as gay, straight, bisexual, pansexual and asexual. For example, one of our participants explained that her wonderful relationship with another girl with autism often involved sitting together for up to 10 hours reading in silence, or spending hours discussing Greek history.

Autism represents a profoundly different way of seeing and being in the world, and individuals with autism often expend great mental and physical effort just trying to appear ‘normal.’ Sex education in school needs to move away from suggesting that people with autism should fit in, and instead explore alternatives to traditional types of romantic relationships.

Awareness gaps:

Our work also suggests that individuals with autism aren’t always aware that they are sexual beings. This lack of self-awareness manifests both in the sexual cues they give off and how they may be perceived by others.

For example, two participants in our study reported behavior that could be perceived as stalking, such as continually following strangers, although they didn’t indicate that they understood how this could seem threatening. One described it this way: “I literally just saw him on the street. And then pretty much just stalked him.”

Not having a sense of one’s own sexuality can be harmful in other ways. For example, individuals with autism are three times as likely to experience sexual exploitation as their peers5. In our study, participants spoke of times when they had been extremely vulnerable and open to abuse. One woman reported that others had gotten her drunk and encouraged her to have sex with girls even though she doesn’t identify as gay. In the interview, she did not appear to be aware that these incidents could be perceived as someone taking advantage of her.

Sex educators need to understand these gaps in awareness to build confidence in young people with autism and to protect them from harm and from unintentionally harming others. For example, young people with autism need to be aware of the law on issues such as stalking, which they themselves may not see as a problem. Their education needs to include lessons on the language of sex and draw distinctions between playful and threatening behavior. It also needs to address issues of abuse and signs that a relationship or encounter is abusive.

Research such as ours can offer insight into this area and provide the tools for effective sex education for people with autism. With the right support, adolescents with autism can feel more comfortable building relationships and exploring their sexuality. This support will help them develop healthy relationships and experience their benefits to well-being, self-esteem and happiness.

Steven Stagg is senior lecturer in the Faculty of Science & Technology at Anglia Ruskin University in the United Kingdom.

References:
  1. Davila J. et al. Pers. Relationships 24, 162-184 (2017) Full text
  2. Hatton, S. and A. Tector, Br. J. Spec. Educ. 37, 69-76 (2010) Abstract
  3. Brown-Lavoie, S.M. et al. J. Autism Dev. Disord. 44, 2185-2196 (2014) PubMed
  4. Gilmour, L. et al. Res. Autism Spectr. Disord. 6, 313-318 (2012) Abstract
  5. Brown-Lavoie, S. et al. J. Autism Dev. Disord. 44, 2185-2196 (2014) PubMed

Originally published on Spectrum

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Sex and other foreign words

Much of what Stephen Shore knows about romance he learned in the self-help aisle of a bookstore near the Amherst campus of the University of Massachusetts.

In college, Shore, who has autism, began to wonder if women spoke a language he didn’t understand. Maybe that would explain the perplexing behavior of a former massage student with whom he traded shiatsu sessions, who eventually told him she had been hoping for more than a back rub. Or the woman he met in class one summer, who had assumed she was his girlfriend because they spent most nights cooking, and often shared a bed. Looking back, other people’s signs of romantic interest seemed to almost always get lost in translation.

Shore turned to the self-help shelves to learn the unspoken language of love: He pored over chapters on body language, facial expression and nonverbal communication.

By the time he met Yi Liu, a woman in his graduate-level music theory class at Boston University, he was better prepared. On a summer day in 1989, as they sat side by side on the beach, Liu leaned over and kissed Shore on the lips. She embraced him, then held his hand as they looked out at the sea.

“Based on my research,” he says, “I knew that if a woman hugs you, kisses you and holds your hand all at the same time, she wants to be your girlfriend; you better have an answer right away.”

The couple married a year later, on a sunny afternoon in June 1990.

Relationship status:

Shore was diagnosed with autism around age 3, about a year after he lost his few words and began throwing tantrums. Doctors advised his parents to place him in an institution. Instead, they immersed him in music and movement activities, and imitated his sounds and behavior to help him become aware of himself and others. He began speaking again at 4 and eventually recovered some of the social skills he had lost.

Shore, now 55, recalls his classmates dating in middle and high school, but at the time he didn’t understand love’s allure. “I couldn’t really make sense out of it,” he says.

Society teaches people with autism from a young age that they are incapable of love, says Jessica Penwell Barnett, assistant professor of sexuality studies in the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. Barnett leads sexual education sessions for college students with autism. The stereotype of children with autism as cold, emotionless robots is painful, pervasive and entirely misleading, she says. “Some are very aware of this social representation — it’s like a cloud that hovers over all of their thinking about whether they can be in a relationship or whether another person is going to want to be with them.”

In fact, many people with autism both desire and sustain lasting relationships. “There’s no incompatibility with being on the spectrum and being in a romantic relationship, being in love, being part of a committed partnership,” Barnett says. Like Shore, an estimated 47 percent of adults with the condition share their home — and their life — with a romantic partner.

That doesn’t necessarily mean relationships are easy for people on the spectrum. Some features of autism, such as inflexibility, anxiety, sensory overload, difficulty communicating one’s own — and sensing others’ — personal needs and limits, would seem to lend themselves to relationship disasters. But that thinking is based almost entirely on conjecture. Scientists have been slow to study how and why people with autism form satisfying relationships. Until this decade, many adults with autism went undiagnosed, and those who had the social prowess to forge romantic relationships were considered “vanishingly rare,” says Matthew Lerner, assistant professor of psychology, psychiatry and pediatrics at Stony Brook University in New York.

As that stereotype falls away, researchers are scrambling to piece together a realistic portrait of romance and sexuality in people with autism. Through small studies and anecdotal evidence, they now know scant facts: that many more people with autism desire romantic relationships than achieve them; that autism features such as rigid thinking, anxiety and social awkwardness can create barriers to dating, sex and relationships; that gender variances, including non-binary genders and bisexuality, are more common among people with autism than in the general population.

Having identified some problems, researchers are still grappling with how best to help people with autism achieve lasting relationships. “This has become a sort of screaming priority,” Lerner says. “It’s one of the areas with perhaps the largest gap — I might go so far as to say it’s the area with the largest gap — between community interest and need, and empirical research.”

 

“The only thing I knew to do was to play the role of a girlfriend.” Amy Gravino

Dating dilemmas:

For most people, a healthy love life underpins psychological health and an overall sense of well-being. Depression and anxiety tend to ebb in women with satisfying relationships.

Scientists say these same benefits apply to people with autism — and when romantic relationships are lacking, a key piece of social and emotional health goes missing, too. That can beget a sense of isolation: Depression and anxiety are more than three times as common in adults with autism as in people without the condition. “There is a big problem with loneliness in this population,” says Katherine Gotham, a clinical psychologist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee.

Step one in solving this problem: Dating.

The intricacies of dating — striking up a conversation with a stranger or trying to gauge another person’s interest based on body language or facial expressions, for example — aren’t specific to people with autism, but they’re more difficult for people with the condition to navigate. “We all have the same sorts of struggles, but folks with autism struggle even more,” Barnett says. “The differences are a matter of degree, not kind.”

Cultural factors can complicate courtship. In the United States, for example, dates typically unfold in noisy bars, busy restaurants or loud movie theatres. These environments can worsen anxiety and even be painful for people with sensory sensitivities.

Another complication is that most people tend to have a certain ‘type,’ whether it’s men with beards, for example, or tall women. But people with autism are sometimes unwilling to compromise, Gotham says. “I can think of five people off the top of my head who are frustrated because they don’t have what they want,” she says. The problem is that these people want not just someone they can connect with, but someone with a specific list of attributes. This rigidity can diminish dating prospects.

Dave, a single man living in Nashville, Tennessee, says that for most of his life he has felt anxious about interacting with women. (Dave requested that his last name not be used.) He has had a couple of romantic relationships — but what he really wanted was a girlfriend who resembled someone like Jennifer Aniston; he didn’t want to settle for anything less. He reasoned that because he didn’t have a girlfriend who fit that description, he must have been doing something wrong.

Dave attributed his struggles to a hearing impairment, his physical appearance and the scarcity of Aniston look-alikes in his area. Until he was diagnosed at age 45, he says, “it never occurred to me that it was autism.” After Dave was diagnosed, his therapist helped him hone his social skills. Before long, he had learned a few ground rules for casual conversation, such as taking turns speaking and choosing topics both people are interested in.

The nuance and subtlety of courtship can be especially confusing for people who have trouble recognizing social cues. It’s one of the most challenging social experiences that people with autism face: “Dating involves flirting, it relies on a lot of nonverbal behaviors,” Barnett says. “You don’t say what you’re thinking in the way that you’re thinking it.”

Last year, a team of researchers at University College London reported that women with autism tend to overlook subtle cues signaling a man’s interest, and mirror men’s flirtatious behavior without meaning to. About one-third of the women in the study said they didn’t notice platonic interactions escalating into something more sexually charged, so they often found themselves fending off unwelcome advances.

For Shore, too, the difficulty of recognizing social cues landed him in his first romantic encounter before he even realized what was happening.

After his first year of college, Shore began spending long hours with the woman he met during summer classes — talking, cooking and watching movies. “Then one day she tells me she really loves hugs and back rubs,” Shore recalls. “I remember sleeping over at her house, sharing a bed, and that was exactly what we did. Then she seemed to get pretty upset.”

During a lengthy conversation, Shore realized the woman had wanted to be his girlfriend. He wasn’t interested in dating, so the couple parted ways. But the experience stirred Shore’s curiosity about social cues. “That suggested to me that there’s this whole area of communication that we call nonverbal, which became fascinating to me,” he says. He started logging long hours in bookstores and libraries.

Girlfriends guide to romance:

Whereas Shore read books to learn to detect a budding romance, Amy Gravino mostly relied on Hollywood to decode the rules of long-term relationships.

Like many women with autism, Gravino often masked her social difficulties by adopting the mannerisms of neurotypical women. When she entered her first relationship at age 19, she mimicked the girlfriends she had seen in television shows and movies. “I didn’t know what in the world I was doing,” she says. “The only thing I knew to do was to play the role of a girlfriend — what I thought a girlfriend was supposed to do: I’m supposed to laugh at his jokes even if they’re not funny; I’m supposed to meet his parents.” Looking back, she says, “I didn’t realize that I just needed to be myself.”

Gravino says she found it difficult to forge a deep bond with her partner, in part because she didn’t feel comfortable being herself. The relationship stumbled over rocky terrain for a few months before he finally broke it off.

Her experience isn’t unusual, researchers say. For people with autism, developing a deep and lasting emotional connection is often more difficult than attracting a mate. That may be because a strong relationship depends on partners being both self-aware and aware of others, maintaining emotional stability and being able to learn from past experiences — three domains that prove challenging for some people with autism, Lerner says.

The condition doesn’t necessarily prevent children from forming deep friendships, as Lerner’s team found last year after analyzing the literature — a total of 18 studies — on friendships of boys with autism. But it may constrain the depth and closeness of those friendships — a finding that doesn’t bode well for romantic relationships later in life.

Relationships between a person with autism and a neurotypical person often falter over a specific problem: ‘able-ism,’ an unconscious or overt bias toward people deemed socially or physically ‘able.’ It can be difficult for a neurotypical partner to “understand what it feels like to exist in the world as a person on the spectrum, and be respectful of that and see [their partner] as a whole person,” Barnett says.

Unsurprisingly, long-term relationships are sometimes easier to navigate when both partners have autism. Barnett’s research suggests people on the spectrum are often accepting of each other’s quirks — a craving for deep touch, say, or no touch at all. “They felt that their relationships were higher quality when the partner was on the spectrum; they felt like their partner really got them,” she says. These observations jibe with those from a study of 26,000 adults with autism and 130,000 controls in Sweden, which found that most people with autism prefer partners on the spectrum.

The people with autism who form successful long-term relationships are the ones who have learned to negotiate arrangements that respect their needs — whether a prolonged period of quiet time after work, a relationship with cuddling but no sex, or even a sparsely decorated home that forestalls sensory overload.

Shore’s first relationship lasted a little more than two years. His second ended after just six months, when he discovered that his girlfriend liked to fall asleep to rock music. Shore, who had studied music education in college, found the music too distracting. The couple’s incompatible sleep preferences broke their relationship.

Touchy subjects:

Beyond dating and love, sexual satisfaction — alone or with a partner — is important to well-being. But only a smattering of studies have explored the nature of sexual experiences of people on the spectrum. “Sexuality isn’t taboo in the research community, but it’s still kind of the last topic to the table — which isn’t really fair because it could be key to understanding quality of life and emotional health in people with autism,” Gotham says.

Shore says in his experience, there are two hurdles for a person on the spectrum to be sexual. The first is noticing a partner’s interest in sex. When a date made sexual advances, he often missed them. Once he caught on, a second hurdle appeared: He enjoyed sex but found the sensations overwhelming. Often his girlfriend would have to remain still while he waited for the sensations to pass.

The sounds and sensations of physical intimacy can overwhelm some people with autism. In a 2015 study, Barnett found that for some women with autism, these sensitivities manifest as vaginal muscle spasms, known as vaginismus, that make penetration painful or impossible. “Since [penetration] is considered the default for heterosexual sex in our population, some of them felt the obligation to provide sexual pleasure to their partners, but they also felt this painful coitus,” Barnett says.

Some women with autism don’t realize vaginismus is a common concern and may consider it a personal setback. Instead, she says, they need to use explicit language to describe their discomfort. “Sometimes you just have to say, ‘Vaginal sex just ain’t going to be our thing,’ and negotiate other activities that you can do for sexual pleasure and release.”

That may be easier said than done, however. In the University College London study, the researchers found that many women struggled to articulate their sexual desires and limits. Half of the women said they had acquiesced to unwelcome sexual encounters because they wanted to feel accepted, to receive affection or because they thought they were obliged to perform sexually in a relationship. These patterns also hold true for many neurotypical women, but women on the spectrum may be even less likely to stand up for themselves.

Healthy sexuality draws upon three factors — positive psychological and physical function, a supportive view of self and a strong knowledge base — says Shana Nichols, director of the ASPIRE Center for Learning and Development in Long Island, New York. The first factor comes naturally to people with autism who feel positive about their sexual function. And men with the mildest features of autism report the highest levels of sexual desire, performance, satisfaction and assertiveness, particularly when in a relationship.

The second has to do with self-acceptance and self-love: For some people with autism, romance could promote that positive view of self; for others, it may ultimately lead to the conclusion that life is best lived alone. About five years ago, Dave enrolled in ballroom dancing classes and began to practice interacting with women. Now he says he feels comfortable around his dance partners, and he enjoys socializing with them. “The key is to not worry so much about how someone else responds to me, but for me to be okay in how I’m responding to them,” he says. “Others see that I feel good about myself and it draws people to me.”

Dave insists he’s no longer actively looking for romance — he says he prefers to keep his dance partners at a safe, platonic distance. “I think one of the mistakes people make, including myself, is thinking they have to find somebody in order to be fulfilled,” he says. “A relationship with yourself is really everything.”

When it comes to the third factor — knowledge of sex — people with autism often have little information about sexually transmitted illnesses, contraceptives and sexual behaviors. What little they do know tends to be gleaned mostly from television shows, pornography or the internet. Neurotypical people, by contrast, generally learn about sex from friends, parents or teachers.

Dave says he used to think sex defined a relationship, and he wasn’t particularly interested in compromising on that point. “When you don’t have a lot of sexual experience, you tend to value that more than you actually should,” he says. “I thought that unless I was having those experiences, I wasn’t getting anything out of a relationship.” After working with his therapist, he understands that romantic relationships can mean different things, depending on each partner’s interests, desires and needs.

“Sexuality isn’t taboo in the research community, but it’s still kind of the last topic to the table.” Katherine Gotham

Dark side:

M any parents feel compelled to educate their teenagers on the spectrum about sexuality, but need expert advice, according to a 2016 survey. Last year, researchers at Cardiff University in Wales uncovered one source of this squeamishness: Although studies of healthy sexuality are few and far between, there are more than 5,000 published studies linking autism to inappropriate behavior such as stalking, public fondling or sexual obsessions. A closer look at 42 of these studies reveals that those problems often arise in people with severe autism, perhaps due to difficulty sensing when other people are uncomfortable.

Problematic behaviors also tend to crop up in children who are caught off guard by the physical changes of puberty, prompting the researchers to propose that sexual education may help stave off misconduct. Still, mainstream sex education classes may not address the needs of students with autism.

One program in the Netherlands, called Tackling Teenage Training, individualizes sex education for young people with autism. Enrolled teens have private counseling sessions every week for about six months, focusing on areas such as safe sex, respecting boundaries, and sexual preferences. A small clinical trial earlier this year found that the program helps teens with autism improve their sexual knowledge, build confidence and prevent inappropriate behaviors. One year after completing the program, teens still showed improvements in sexual knowledge, social behavior and problematic sexual behavior.

Sex education programs may also help reduce the alarming rates of sexual exploitation of people with autism.

The researchers at University College London uncovered a “shockingly high incidence” of sexual vulnerability: They found 9 of the 14 women in their study had a history of sexual abuse and 3 had been raped by a stranger. More than half of the women had felt trapped in an abusive relationship at some point in their life. The women also said uncertainty about social norms and trouble sensing ‘creepiness’ or red flags made them vulnerable to sexual exploitation.

Beyond protecting the vulnerable and deterring deviant behavior, these programs aim to guide people with autism toward strong, satisfying relationships.

Sometimes romance blooms without formal training, Nichols says, especially for people such as Shore, who are naturally motivated to notice subtle social cues. “It’s the greater awareness — that social awareness of others and also of themselves — that is really important,” Nichols says. “And the right fit of a partner is huge.”

Shore recalls the moment he realized Liu was the right fit. As he drove her across town one morning in the spring of 1989, Liu looked over at him and said she felt like they were already married. “I thought about it and realized she was right,” he says. In that moment, he says, they became engaged — without a diamond ring, a bended knee or other trappings of a traditional marriage proposal. “It was new territory, taking our relationship to a new level,” Shore recalls. “It was very exciting.”

Shore married a fellow musician, something he always expected he would do. But Liu grew up in China, which upended Shore’s long-held assumption that he would marry someone who shared his New England traditions and customs. He realized it didn’t matter at all that this expectation would not come to pass.

On the afternoon of 10 June 1990, about 150 friends and family members gathered in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, to celebrate Shore and Liu’s wedding. The couple exchanged vows roughly 40 miles down the coast from where they had shared their first kiss.

Corrections

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Amy Gravino, rather than her first boyfriend, ended their relationship.

Originally published on Spectrum

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A 2020 Resolution to Unmask and Live Unapologetically and Authentically » The Aspergian

Wendy Katz has an inspiring, empowering, beautiful resolution mighty enough to last for a decade of work and revolutionary in its simplicity.Read More →

Source: A 2020 Resolution to Unmask and Live Unapologetically and Authentically » The Aspergian

The World We Live In Today

Recently, I have came across a news story where a five year old boy with autism was labeled a Sex Offender after he hugged a fellow classmate.

The educators labeled the activity at the beginning of the school term as “sexual activities” consisting of hugging and kissing another child on the cheek.

At that age, regardless of ability to comprehend, a child on the spectrum has no clue that this is inappropriate.

Oftentimes, there are policies or politics that cause authoritians to rush to judgement without consiering all factors in the student’s treatment, as such the “Federal Privacy Clause” is oftentime used as a silencer as a method when parents ask what the punishment is for the other students involved in a act as a cover up.

“As such in this case it was disclosed that it will go in his record for the rest of his life that he is a sex offender.” As this child and many others that have autim that function very different than any child, let alone a five year old, it can leave a parent very confused on what to do.

“Who do you turn to for help when the school will not even listen to the child’s doctor when he explains the child’s difficulties in his comprehension of simple things such as boundaries?”

If we rewinded the clock 20 years ago, there would have been MANY things I have done (that I regret) that would have caused me to fall in this category. Therefore, I thank God that I have the freedoms that I have today.

As such, I feel that it my duty to make sure that I advocate the necessity of learning what allowed and not allowed in the feeling of touch and embracing. As such, I have learned later before embracing anyone or anything of the like to ask for consent to prevent complications, therefore to prevent any compromising issues that may arise.

Lastly, an individual should have the ability to have a relationship (as they age and understand) of course as they see fit, I am always a defender of that, however, the issue of gaining consent must be stressed to the maximum capability possible.

Spirituality

Throughout life I would say that I was spiritual. From the time I was a toddler until the time I was in the third grade, when I started acting out, I was the one to go to Sunday School and later Worship in the one church of our town because that is what my sister and I did. She was very active in the Youth Group and she had responsibilites with so as a family we attended alot of activities. Furthermore, I was in the Junior Choir for a few years.

However as I got older, for one reason or another, I got detatched away from the church, although I worshipped regularly. At the age of 14, we would have a change of pastors and also that would be the time that you could be confirmed and be a member of the church, although I was baptized when I was 10 because of one reason or another we had issues but realized the need for it to be done, as with my cousin and another family friend. Howver, I was experiencing symptoms that prohibited me from being confirmed from the church.

Years would go by through the hospitalizations and the residental treatment. Afer such, I ended up at a little country church on the mountain where I would read the bible on the week, and I even had my sixteenth birthday there.

However, I continued to have a disconnect with God.

In Senior High, we had club meetings during the day every other week. As such, it was  suggested that I join the Bible Club, and I did and was active in that by attending the annual See You At the Pole Servives, participating in missions donating bibles, you name it.

However,  I still had the disconnect.

I would graduate High School, attend trade school and be further away from God, however when I had trouble I knew he was there.

Years later, while that pastor was there when he before I left the church as a teenager would visit our house and I would go to church again, be confirmed and affirmed as a member of the United Methodist Church, of which I still am a member today.

However, I feel disconnected from a church itself.

It wasn’t until a few months ago that I would be provided a service in a home and I would talk to a professional about myself and he said words that I would never forget.

“Jesus Loves You”

I don’t know, but it called to me and he found online resources that met my needs and although I don’t feel comfortable attending a church body for one reason or another, I find peace in having a small spiritual area in my home and having morning devotions in the morning, even using a free bible from a thrift shop that was created for a camp that is easier for me to comprehend.

On days I am at the hospital gettting weighed or working out, I do those devotions in the hospital’s chapel, usually two days a week, to get that reconnect, also recently I went down to the river park and did devotions there.

I have felt spiritually connected in one way or another.

Last month the vocational program went to the local United Methodist Camp where they have a large steel cross that overlooks the county seat. This was a week after being medicated, the staff attending said you couldn’t wipe that smile off my face of how happy I felt overall.

For the moment, I am well spiritually and I will be satisfied overall

Book Review: Demystifying the Autistic Experience: A Humanistic Introduction for Parents, Caregivers and Educators (2002)

Around the time this book was written the author’s name was brought up in conversation as “the one who got it.” Little did I know of 17 years of molding into the man I have become, and a unique 50 cent book in a thrift shop, I would discover that the book would make me get it more.

I was in an interdisciplinary meeting at the time, it was stressful we were about one year out of the RTF, about one year near the completion of High School, yet I was still in services that I now know were at thw time were excessive and not a proper fit given the age. However, in this meeting, a gentleman who was a represntative of the County Mental Health Office, and now serves in a more indirect role of my employment had mentioned the gentleman. Myself and my parents were skeptic and it even brought emotions in the meeting very deeply. However we would move on. By the way that county representative is acknowledged in the book.

Fast forward to two days ago, when I was reading the book, it tells of what we as individuals on the spectrum feel and how we want what we want, and how we express what we express it in the way we do, even if it may seem odd to others, however it is the way it is.

He explains several things that make sense to me. Like the adrediline and cortisol and the necesity to exert energy regularly to relive it as well as the stimming along with the person centered language and the importance of treating an individual on the spectrum for who they are although we are unique in our very own way, to see the entirity of the person as a whole and to have them feel as they feel in their own special way.

Many who have heard of Mr. Stillman have heard of his Wizard of Oz Obsession. As he got older it would be precarious to explain this to a friend, however he was allowed to keep his obsession, in a secluded private place in the home. This being said, any individual has the right to enjoy whatever it is to enjoy. For those who “age out” of that thing to the point where it may seem inappropriate, it is best to find a private place of the home and let that indivual visit that obsesion from time to time. We have to keep in mind this was before the internet came into play, which has made individuals on the spectrum grow their intellect by leaps and bounds. My parents had a conputer given to us by my late uncle in 1998, not many had a computer at the time, I cannot tell you how grateful I am to my uncle for donating that to us. Nonetheless, it has made me mold into my techonoligicla capable self that I am today.

Sometimes, we need to take a break from the Internet and social media and be thankful for the goof old pleasaure of life like the outdoors, friends, family, etc. We are grateful for the advances of technology, however it is important to get active and stay active in many activies that human involvemnt can provide.

Lastly in his biographical chapter of the book, he gingerly discusses his sexuality a bit. While 17 years after this book was published, this was a very heated are to discuss about individuals on the spectrum, i felt it was a necessary component to the whole picuture because sometimes you have no idea what that person feels until you ask them and heck, they may not even know. Yes, the LGBTQ community has come leaps in bounds as a whole, however discrimination still happens, as such I feel there needs to be openess to this subject in both sides of the Autism Spectrum Communities, both in the I/DD field and Mental Health field. Professionals are afraid to ask, training is needed for each and every professional and yes there are views that a person may have, but they have to put them aside to see what makes the person happy. Because once the persons close to them leave, they many not be happy with societal norms and want to believe what they want. We have made policies and statements about this in the governmental communities, however we need to “stick to our guns” in this effect.

The book was one of the best books on the spectrum I have read in a while.