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Neurodiversity and Relationship Variation

Why some with autism or ADHD are drawn to consensual nonmonogamy and/or BDSM.

Key points

  • Neurodiversity includes a wide range of brain variations, including ADHD and the autism spectrum.
  • Neurodiverse folx have been stigmatized in the past but are challenging pathological assumptions.
  • As social experiences, both BDSM and CNM relationships emphasize honesty, negotiation, and communication.

In the past 20 years, society has become increasingly aware of neurodiversity, especially in the fields of education, psychology, social work, therapy, and counseling. This greater understanding of the many ways in which brains work and how that impacts social interaction has permeated into kinky subcultures and polyamorous and other consensually nonmonogamous (CNM) populations.


According to Psychology Today editors, neurodiversity is the “variation of brain function [that] exists across the population,” and can include a huge range of thoughts and behaviors including obsessive compulsion, dyslexia, intellectual or developmental disabilities, epilepsy, Tourette’s syndrome, and even mental illness such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Author and educator John Elder Robinson classifies neurodiversity as the “result of normal, natural variation in the human genome” that can be supported and celebrated without pathology. Some academic researchers, psychologists, and neurodiverse folks argue that autism and related forms of diversity can be advantageous forms of “cognitive specialization that provide benefits that “aid group survival.”

The two primary forms of neurodiversity that this post addresses are attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and the autism spectrum. ADHD has also been termed attention-deficit disorder or ADD, and generally involves a range of indicators like rapidly shifting attention, distractibility, difficulty managing time, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. Autism is a challenge with information processing that leads to the tendency to understand the world in literal or mechanistic terms that can impact the ability to comprehend others’ emotions, perspectives, intentions, and use of symbolism or sarcasm, and is often accompanied by sensory sensitivity and difficulty regulating emotions. Some link this with heightened brain activity that makes it difficult to filter the social and physical environment in order to select some important cues and ignore others that are less relevant.

Muffinator/Wikimedia Commons
Image: Black outline of brain with rainbow colors
Source: Muffinator/Wikimedia Commons

There is some controversy over whether neurodiversity is increasing or if it is simply diagnosed more often now that people are more aware of it. Some researchers argue that modern video and sound-byte society has encouraged shorter attention spans and greater difficulty with social interactions that are characteristic of some neurodiverse folks, while others point out the social factors that influence diagnosis like gender and social class.

People who were assigned male at birth, especially those with race and class privilege, are more likely to be diagnosed with neurodivergence because they are more likely to be interpreted as neurodiverse, and they will more often have access to the kind of specialized medical care and testing that would enable a diagnosis of ADHD or autism for themselves or their children. Those who are subjected to racism and poverty are far more likely to be diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder or a developmental disability rather than being identified as neurodiverse. Sexism can increase the likelihood that neurodiverse girls and women are more vulnerable to sexual abuse and assault. Communities of neurodiverse folks are challenging the assumption that these differences are deficits and make the point that it can be an adaptive strategy and even an advantage, especially if conventional society is willing to move beyond prejudicial assumptions of pathology and celebrate diversity.

Consensual Nonmonogamy

Consensual nonmonogamy (CNM) takes a number of different forms, from very traditional polygynous marriages with one husband and several wives to polyamorous relationships where people of any gender and marital status might have multiple emotional, sexual, and/or romantic partners. What unites all forms of CNM is the consensual nature of the relationships that involves informed negotiation among adults who structure their “designer relationships” to suit their individual needs.

Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, and Sadism and Masochism

BDSM stands for bondage and discipline (such as tying someone up and spanking them), dominance and submission (exchanging personal power where one person allows the other to take control in specified ways), and sadism and masochism (the joy of inflicting or receiving intense sensations like physical pain or humiliation). There is a significant overlap between people who practice forms of CNM (especially polyamory) and BDSM, as well as between practitioners of these diverse relationship styles and neurodiversity.

Why the Overlap?

As social experiences, both BDSM and CNM relationships emphasize honesty, negotiation, and communication. Negotiating can be collaborative in CNM or perhaps directive in BDSM but generally does not take common social scripts for granted. This expectation of explicit boundaries and the ability to negotiate relationships with boundaries that differ from conventional relationships can benefit folx who have autism or ADHD in several ways. Negotiation in both CNM and BDSM means that people can establish very clear expectations that do not require intuiting underlying meanings or intentions. Both CNM and BDSM communities frequently encourage practitioners to seek the kind of self-awareness that enables them to understand their own boundaries, motivations, and emotions. Sometimes this involves explicit permission to ask for help or clarification if a situation seems to rely on unspoken social expectations. This can both relieve fears of bluntness being misinterpreted and foster self-acceptance.

BDSM can involve not only intense sensations that can override busy thoughts but also sensory deprivation and inward focus or excruciatingly clear direction that can be a relief because it leaves no doubt about the expectations. Some neurodiverse folks work hard to blend into neurotypical society, a practice they have labeled “masking.” For some BDSM practitioners, wearing hoods or masks can be a huge relief from trying to constantly monitor their facial expressions and allow them to finally drop their social mask for a little while.

More from Elisabeth A. Sheff Ph.D., CSE
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