Georgia Harper

Autism and relationships – a little bit of myth busting

18th September 2019

After focusing yesterday on practical support for disabled people to enable them to have independent, fulfilling relationships, today we are looking at how autistic people could be better included in relationships and sex education (RSE) with a blog from Georgia Harper.

Co-presenter of last year’s channel 4 documentary ‘Are You Autistic?’ and Youth Patron for Ambitious about Autism, Georgia is here to bust some myths when it comes to autistic people and relationships and stress the importance of ditching the metaphors when it comes to RSE!

There’s a popular misconception that that if you’re in a relationship, you can’t be autistic – or at least, you must have some different kind of autism that means you can’t possibly have any other difficulties and generally shouldn’t be listened to. Just as with the stereotype that autistic people don’t want friends, the fact that we interact with others differently to the neurotypical majority is taken to mean that autistic people don’t want relationships.

Of course, some people actually don’t, and that’s okay, because you don’t need a partner to have a fulfilled life. For some autistic people, being autistic might form at least part of the reason why they either don’t want a relationship or struggle in practice to find a partner. I’m certainly not rushing into anything anytime soon, in part due to some previous bad experiences but also because I feel like I’ve only just got a handle on keeping my own adult life and responsibilities together, never mind adding the unwritten rules of dating into the mix and then having to work around someone else’s! Autistic people aren’t going to automatically get on well in relationships with each other, either; some will, some won’t, we’re all different individuals like everyone else.

Understanding the risks and challenges

That said, many autistic people can and do have relationships, and the myth that we don’t is particularly dangerous because it often means no-one teaches us for the risks and challenges they bring. Either we’re left out of SRE altogether, or we’re given RSE that doesn’t acknowledge our different needs. We already know that young people are often left to take their cues from unhealthy media portrayals of romance – and for autistic people, with our tendency to take things literally and sometimes to ‘mask’ our autistic traits by mimicking characters we admire, this is intensified further.

Negative stereotypes around autism in the media make matters worse – when the issue of autism and relationships is explored, it’s almost always a male ‘accidental misogynist’ who apparently just can’t help the way he mistreats his invariably female love interests so should really just be left to get away with it. Which, aside from everything else, is horribly demeaning towards autistic men!

This lack of accessible RSE is pertinent given that we know disabled people of all genders face far higher rates of domestic violence, with disabled women experiencing the highest rates of all; while we desperately need more research on intimate partner violence in autism specifically, it looks to be the same story there. This is another area where the myths can be damaging – an autistic (or otherwise disabled) person trapped in an unhealthy or even abusive relationship might be made to feel that, if relationships are apparently so rare for people like them, they should be grateful to have one at all. Even for those who don’t show interest in relationships, the problem with pressure and coercion is that they’re used to make people do things they don’t want to – and predators tend to target people they consider vulnerable. It’s a depressing thought, but nobody is automatically safe.

How can we make RSE more accessible to autistic people?

For a start, there are a LOT of metaphors – I still have no idea why we talk about the birds and the bees and how that has anything to do with human sex and relationships! RSE should also actively challenge the more general stereotypes around relationships that autistic people may have taken literally, such as abuse being portrayed as virtually always physical. There also tends to be a focus on the biology of sex which, while being hugely important in its own right, leaves out a lot of steps that might happen on the way there (or without sex being part of it at all). We need to look beyond ‘how sex works’ and consider dating and maintaining relationships, as well as the all-important issue of recognising when it isn’t working and breaking up.

In addition, RSE should consider how the experiences of autistic people might differ from our peers. For example, ‘mate crime’ may be a more significant risk – sometimes, abuse is someone who claims to be your friend telling you that everything will be fine if you’d just stop worrying and let them do what they want. However, we also need to consider that part of the problem is how we treat autistic young people more generally.

We’re often told that our sensory experiences are objectively wrong, over-reacting, our own problem for us to ‘get over’. Many autistic people are hyper-sensitive to touch. I’ll let you do the maths. Growing up as an autistic child is often a crash course in learning The Social Rules, often along the lines of ‘this is what you need to do because I’m an adult and I said so’, and this often leaves out one of the most important social skills: setting boundaries and saying no. Autistic young people face shocking rates of bullying, and are then often told it’s our own fault for mis-interpreting a ‘joke’ or drawing attention with our autistic traits.

All of the above can be factors in placing autistic people at higher risk as they grow up and enter the world of relationships – and to address these issues, we have to start by acknowledging that we can and do enter that world.

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