Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Why Autistic People Might Experience Sex in a Different Way

Communication and awareness can help couples work through sensory issues.

Key points

  • Sensory processing differences can lead to differences in autistic people’s experience of sex.
  • Some autistic people find that intimate touch and sex are unpleasant, painful, or intolerable.
  • Some autistic people seek out sexual sensory behaviours due to hyposensitivity.

In recent years, the subject of sexuality and autism has increasingly been the focus of research, from gaining an overview of autistic sexual experiences1 to some of the issues around abuse and victimisation that autistic people are at higher risk of.2 However, comparatively little research has been conducted into autistic people’s sensory experience of sex. In the biggest study of its kind,3 results backed up what my clients regularly tell me—that sensory issues have a significant impact for many autistic people.

Sensory differences, including hypersensitivity where people experience smells, touch, visuals, taste, and noise far more intensely than most people, and hyposensitivity, where people experience a reduced response to certain sensory triggers, have an acute impact on how autistic people process their world. Whilst hypersensitivity can mean that sensory triggers are unpleasant, painful, and unbearable and lead to avoidance or disturbing experiences, hyposensitivity can lead to sensory-seeking behaviours.

From our sense of space and proximity to another person, kissing, visual input,4 touch,5 scent,6 and sounds,7 sex and sensory experience are completely entwined. For those who experience sensory processing differences, it’s understandable that their sexual experience may also differ. It’s also important to note that not all autistic people, including those with sensory differences, are impacted in this way and that sexually related differences or issues might be due to other reasons.8

Here are some ways in which autistic people’s sensory experience may impact their experience of sex and, by extension, their experiences of relationships and their sense of self. Given the lack of research, this is primarily based on what friends and clients have shared with me and mirrors many of the findings of research conducted in 2021.8,9

Intense response to affectionate touching

Hugging, kissing, stroking, and holding hands are some of the ways in which couples might physically connect throughout their day, and this type of nonsexual, intimate touching is often linked to higher levels of relationship satisfaction.10 However, many autistic people experience an intense and sometimes overwhelming or unpleasant response to affectionate touching. Marie described the “unbearable” sensation she experienced when her husband put his arms around her or kissed her neck. “I want to punch him,” she told me. “I feel physically overwhelmed and angry and distressed. He found my response so hurtful in the early days. He’s sort of resigned to it now, but it still upsets him.”

Lack of initiating affectionate touch

Alongside an intense response to affectionate touch is often a lack of initiation of touch. Jenny’s wife felt rejected because of what she felt was Jenny’s lack of affection. “I enjoy hugging and love it when my wife hugs me,” Jenny told me. “But it never, ever crosses my mind to initiate hugging or hand-holding. My wife has shared that she finds this upsetting, and I consciously make a note to do it next time, but it never feels natural, so I end up forgetting, and she feels that I’m not making an effort.”

Avoidance of sex

For autistic people, sex is sometimes such a sensorily overwhelming experience that it is unpleasant or uncomfortable.11 Rhianna told me that she had always found sex unpleasant, but had put up with it because she wanted a partner and thought it was the "normal" thing to do. She described herself as becoming "panicky" during kissing and sexual touching and that she “dislikes everything about being with someone. I find soft touch overwhelming, I don’t like kissing, I find someone else’s smells horrible. I feel hot and sweaty and claustrophobic at having someone so close. I used to drink heavily to cope with it but since stopping drinking my partner and I have stopped having sex. It’s been five years now.”

Seeking out sensory experiences

People who experience hypo-sensitivity may need higher levels of stimulation than most people might to become aroused, which can lead to a higher frequency of sexual behaviours12 or the development of an interest in objects, situations, or activities that are considered more unusual.13 Some clients report having little interest in sexual partners whilst having a high sex drive that is satisfied in other ways. Clarissa described the shame she felt as a teenager around what she describes as a “compulsive need” to masturbate several times a day, using a variety of objects. As an adult, she felt that her sex life had been driven by a need to “satisfy needs which my friends just don’t seem to have. I’ve had far more sexual partners than them, I’ve engaged in what others consider ‘dangerous’ or ‘strange’ behaviours. One-on-one sex with a single partner becomes very boring for me, no matter how much I like them.”

If you’re an autistic person and your sensory experience of sex causes any of the experiences discussed above, it’s important to remove any sense of shame. Your experience might be different from many other people you know, but that difference is simply down to how your brain processes the world. Some autistic people choose not to be in sexual relationships, and some couples live happily in sexless or low-sex relationships. However, if you feel there are problems in your relationship rooted in your sensory experiences, open and honest communication can help. Many partners feel unloved or rejected. By explaining that your response to certain types of touch or sex are driven by your sensory experience, rather than a response to them as a person, you can help them gain a new perspective on the situation.

Honest and open communication can also help couples come up with solutions. For instance, some autistic people find that sensory overwhelm is minimised if they feel in control of the pace of sexual activity, if they completely avoid certain sexual activities, or if their partner asks them in advance if it’s OK to hug them. Others find that setting aside a time for intimate touch can help reduce worry around the unknown and spontaneity. It might seem clunky at first, but if natural and spontaneous touch and sexual activity feel too overwhelming or unpleasant, exploring different solutions can make a significant difference in relationships.

Some couples are unable to find a resolution. Daniel told me, “I know it’s devastating for my wife. We’ve been married three years after a bit of a whirlwind romance. I love her and I desperately wanted marriage, kids, the whole lot, but we didn’t have sex before marriage, and after the first few times, I realised it’s a horrible experience for me. It’s devastating because I still want my wife and a family, but she feels unbelievably hurt and rejected. I don’t see a way forward.”

If you’re experiencing any of these issues, therapy or coaching with a practitioner who understands the autistic sensory experiences of touch and sex may be helpful in finding a way forward.


1. Maggio MG, Calatozzo P, Cerasa A, Pioggia G, Quartarone A, Calabrò RS. Sex and Sexuality in Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Scoping Review on a Neglected but Fundamental Issue. Brain Sci. 2022 Oct 24;12(11):1427. doi: 10.3390/brainsci12111427. PMID: 36358354; PMCID: PMC9688284.

2. Brown-Lavoie SM, Viecili MA, Weiss JA. Sexual Knowledge and Victimisation in Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders. J. Autism Develop Dis. 2014;44:2185–2196. doi: 10.1007/s10803-014-2093-y.

3. Gray S, Kirby AV, Graham Holmes L. Autistic Narratives of Sensory Features, Sexuality, and Relationships. Autism Adulthood. 2021 Sep 1;3(3):238–246. doi: 10.1089/aut.2020.0049. Epub 2021 Sep 2. PMID: 36605373; PMCID: PMC8992905.

4. Redouté J, Stoléru S, Grégoire MC, Costes N, Cinotti L, Lavenne F, Le Bars D, Forest MG, Pujol JF. Brain processing of visual sexual stimuli in human males. Hum Brain Mapp. 2000 Nov;11(3):162–177. doi: 10.1002/1097-0193(200011)11:3<162::aid-hbm30>;2-a. PMID: 11098795; PMCID: PMC6871964.

5. Sorokowska A, Kowal M, Saluja S, et al. Love and affectionate touch toward romantic partners all over the world. Sci Rep. 2023 Apr 4;13(1):5497. doi: 10.1038/s41598-023-31502-1. PMID: 37015974; PMCID: PMC10073073.

6. Bendas, J, Hummel, T, & Croy, I (2018). Olfactory Function Relates to Sexual Experience in Adults. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 1–7

7. Anikin, A Why do people make noises in bed?, Evolution and Human Behavior, Volume 45, Issue 2, 2024, Pages 183–192, ISSN 1090-5138, (

8. Weir E, Allison C, Baron-Cohen S. The sexual health, orientation, and activity of autistic adolescents and adults. Autism Res. 2021 Nov;14(11):2342–2354. doi: 10.1002/aur.2604. Epub 2021 Sep 18. Erratum in: Autism Res. 2022 Apr;15(4):771. PMID: 34536071.

9. Gray S, Kirby AV, Graham Holmes L. Autistic Narratives of Sensory Features, Sexuality, and Relationships. Autism Adulthood. 2021 Sep 1;3(3):238–246. doi: 10.1089/aut.2020.0049. Epub 2021 Sep 2. PMID: 36605373; PMCID: PMC8992905.

10. Wagner, S. A., Mattson, R. E., Davila, J., Johnson, M. D., & Cameron, N. M. (2020). Touch me just enough: The intersection of adult attachment, intimate touch, and marital satisfaction. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 37(6), 1945–1967.

11. Hénault, I. Sexual relationships. In: Welkowitz, L.A. (ed.) Asperger’s Syndrome: Intervening in Schools, Clinics, and Communities, pp. 243–255. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates (2005)

12. García-Barba, M, Nichols, S, Ballester-Arnal, R et al. Positive and Negative Sexual Cognitions of Autistic Individuals. Sex Disabil 42, 167–187 (2024).

13. Schöttle, D, Briken, P, Tüscher, O, Turner, D. Sexuality in autism: Hypersexual and paraphilic behavior in women and men with high-functioning autism spectrum disorder. Dialog Clin Neurosci. 19(4), 381–393 (2017)

More from Claire Jack Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today