Neurodiversity, Sensory Sensitivities, and sex
“She might not want to have sex, but will be unable to say no because of that temporary shutdown, confusion, and conformity to peer pressure.”
How will this help me?
This article, Article 2 (Understanding), explores 3 key aspects of neurodivergent (ND) sex. It’s primarily aimed at neurodiverse folks, but is also a useful resource for anyone who wants to understand us better.
By the end of this article, you’ll have:
- A better understanding of your sensory processing joys and challenges in relation to sex and intimacy
- New ways to conceptualise these experiences
- Helpful ways to discuss these with partners and playmates.
The 3 aspects of ND sex that we are focusing on are those my clients find the most useful to explore and work with. They are:
- Over/under-stimulation and sensory icks
- Shutdown, reptiles and mammals
- Sensory stacking and sensory euphoria.
1. Over/under-stimulation & Sensory icks
Let’s now focus on the ND experience. Thinking back to the previous article in this series, someone who is hyposensitive may require more physical stimulation to get aroused, such as greater pressure rather than feathery touches. They may also find it harder to put into words or explain to a partner the specifics of what arouses them. This inability to formulate what turns them on and the absence of appropriately strong stimulation can feel very frustrating. Sexually speaking, hyposensitive people may feel they’re revving the engine but stuck in neutral. This can lead to them avoiding sex altogether or believing their not good at sex, as they’re not turned on by what their partner does and they can’t explain why.
There’s some evidence that people with ADHD tend to require more sensory stimulation to be aroused and yet experience lower sexual satisfaction or even anorgasmia (they can’t orgasm or only do so infrequently). The challenge might be that the genitals aren’t particularly sensitive and therefore manual stimulation can only get them so far before it feels physically uncomfortable or painful. For example, the vulva can lubricate and swell at first then go dry, or the penis becomes erect and then soften as the arousal fades, leaving the person feeling defeated.
In contrast, someone who is hypersensitive might need low lighting and rumple-free bedsheets that are free from body smells. These people can easily get over-aroused due to sensory icks or unbalanced sensory stacking, which we talk about in part 3 below.
For hypersensitive ND folks, this overwhelm can be like blowing a fuse and, for them, the whole sexual process is over. It can also lead to a whole body overwhelm which can leave them nauseated, non-verbal, teary, or withdrawn. Many hypersensitive people find that sex is uncomfortably intense for them and they prefer other ways of feeling intimate and being sensual.
A sensory ick is some sensory input that makes the person feel uncontrollably repulsed, grossed out, or totally yucky. It’s a physical, visceral and uncontrollable response that’s not logical and is considerably stronger than just disliking something. Not all ND people have the same causes of a sensory icks. It’s might be the sound of nails on a chalkboard, the viscosity of body fluids, or garlicy breath on their face.
Whatever the sensory input, the response to a sensory ick is usually some combination of shutdown, gagging, or feeling nauseous, which can include being unable to verbalise what’s wrong. If this happens to you, you’re not alone and you’re not broken. Overwhelming sensory icks really are a thing, especially in high sensory environments, such as physical intimacy.
Both groups may have been told by partners that they are difficult to arouse, the first being called frigid or unresponsive, the second being difficult or picky. Unsurprisingly, this can lead to a lot of shame and anxiety. In turn, this can contribute to psychosexual problems such as struggling to maintain an erection or being able to orgasm.
2. Shutdown, reptiles & mammals
Arousal & Shutdown
In my experience, most ND people seem to fall into two camps, very much into sex or very much not into sex, or sometimes they vacillate between the two extremes. It seems to be quite rare to find a ND person who has the sexual ambivalence of many NT folk.
Let’s talk about sexual arousal. Let’s assume that both hyposensitive and hypersensitive people know how to get turned on and erotically excited. For some, alexithymia, which is the inability to put words to emotions or recognise internal feelings, can make it very difficult to express how they enjoy being touched and what they want to feel.
Even if you can express your intimate wants and needs, it can be challenging to explain to your partner how to get your aroused, not just physically, but also mentally, and emotionally. The need for synchronicity of touch or pressure, specific patterns of foreplay, and other consistent behaviours in order to create arousal in an ND body can baffle NT partners.
Put another way, each neurodiverse person needs to experience their Goldilocks level and type of stimulation. Although this is also true for neurotypical folks, it seems to me that not only is it harder to achieve this optimum level for neurodivergent people, but the outcome of too much, too little, or just the wrong sort of stimulation most frequently leads to shutdown. This takes us back to the opening quote of this article, although it isn’t restricted only to women. The emotional fallout of a sensual act that is meant to be the most intimate experience ending up as the most isolating can be vast and long-lasting. It can also set up cycles of performance anxiety, resulting in sexual issues such as erectile dysfunction.
Reptiles & Mammals
Being in a state of shutdown is horrible for lots of reasons, not least because you usually can’t explain to someone else what the cause was and what alterations you need in relation to sensory input.
One way to imagine this is that in shutdown mode you only have access to a reptile-like state of mind. This means that you know if you’re in danger and, if you can break the spell of your fright-state, your feet will probably be able to carry out of the room. But, the default mode of operation of this primitive state of mind is one of extreme caution or fear. It is not one of rational thought or meaningful communication. So being in reptile mode will keep you safe, but is not good for making decisions or talking about sensitive issues such as arousal and intimacy needs.
In contrast, when you’re not in shutdown, I hope you have access to your glorious and multi-talented, mammalian brain functioning. For some reason, this always makes me think of Shere Kahn the tiger in The Jungle Book. This allows for warmth, compassion, conversation, and more rational thought processes. (To be clear, the idea of an actual human reptile brain has been disproved, and what we’re talking about is more a way of thinking.)
I offer this imagery as a way of perceiving yourself. If you’re having a difficult time during or after sex, feeling fearful or overwhelmed, maybe let your reptile self take you to a safer place and remove yourself from the situation. Trust it to keep you safe. In contrast, if you want to talk about arousal and sexual sensory input, it’s worth checking in with yourself and to see if you’re in amore available mammal mode. It can also be really helpful to write down what triggers you into reptile mode and what methods or techniques can bring you back to mammal mode.
A considerable number of neurodiverse people get overwhelmed by sensory input during sex and end up in shutdown, sometimes as early as during foreplay.
If that’s you and you find it helpful to use the inner reference points of feeling like a lizard or a tiger, you can use that to gauge how available you are to talk about what’s happening for you or just withdraw. I invite you to allow yourself to shutdown if needed but also to reflect on the causes of the shutdown when you’re in a more mammalian mood.
3. Sensory stacking & sensory Euphoria
If sensory overwhelm is an unwanted part of you erotic experiences, let me reassure you that it doesn’t have to be that way and things can change. Here are two aspects about yourself to explore that will help you address that problem.
Let’s take a step back and consider how much input and stimulus each of our senses enjoys. If you want to dive into this, this article explains how. Each sense usually has a sweet spot of input, such as the volume you like your headphones or temperature of your heating or AC. I don’t need to tell you, however, that this can vary depending on other sensory input. For example, when I’m hungry or tired, I can’t tolerate bright lights. The combined upper limit of individual sensory inputs is what I refer to as sensory stacking. It’s worth saying that for most people, the closer we get to our sensory stack limit, the harder it is for us to discern which sensory input is causing the problem.
An example of sexual sensory stacking might be that you usually enjoy your partner’s strong hugs, but when hugging naked the temperature and smell of their body makes the pressure too strong. The sensory stack is too high to be enjoyable, but the sense of temperature and smell overwhelm makes it impossible to realise that the pressure is too much. You might find it useful to write down examples of your preferred sensory staking levels for all sense during intimacy.
Sensory euphoria is sort of the combined opposite of sensory overload and sensory icks. Sensory euphoria is when all of your senses have the Goldilocks type and level of input to bring you exquisite delight and joy. It can make you feel deeply present and super alive. I encourage you to find your unique stimuli for sensory euphorias. While they are always profoundly pleasurable, they may or may not be sexual, and may or may not be kinky. I invite you not to limit yourself to these labels, but rather to explore what feels best to you.
Two ways to understand yourself better and to enjoy sex with yourself or others, should you want to have sex, are to really research you own preferred sensory stacking levels and to learn what brings you sensory euphoria. Moreover, sharing these with partners can be truly life-changing.
How can I learn to do this?
I appreciate this is a rather long and dense article. If you like the idea of working out your sensory icks and individual sensory limits, as well as learning how to better communicate them, I’m here the help you. Many clients have made huge shifts in their intimate relationships by understanding themselves better and learning healthier and easier ways to communicate their discoveries.
Together, we can explore and help you craft specific ways to have more sensorily enjoyable intimacy, whatever your sexuality and preferences, including if you’re ace. You deserve for your sensory processing to enhance your intimacy not detract from it or upset you.