Neurodiversity, sex, and sensations
This is article 1 of 3 that explore neurodiversity and sex.
Article 1 (recognition), looks at sensory processing and sensitivity, to help you better understand yourself.
Article 2 (understanding), considers neurotypical arousal patterns and how this might be different for neurodivergent people.
Article 3 (compassion), explores how you can bring what you found useful in articles 1 & 2 into your relationship and work positively with your differences together.
1. What do we really know?
Unfortunately, there’s currently very little research into sex, sensory sensitivities, and neurodiversity. Despite that, it’s a huge topic, which is why I’ve broken it down into 3 articles. This is the most sciency article of the 3, for which I make no apologies. I want as many neurodivergent people as possible to better understand how they work on their own terms.
There’s the stereotype that people on the spectrum either aren’t interested in, or capable of, sex and intimacy, which I want to dispel from the outset. However, we’re also not a homogenous group. The generalisations I make here are aimed at offering wide-ranging support rather than assuming all neurodiverse people are the same.
While we all enjoy some form of connection and intimacy with others, our individual preferences are unique and don’t need to include exchanging body fluids or penetrative sex. If you’re struggling with these issues while dating, this article might help.
2. How much sensory input is comfortable?
Sex with yourself or another person tends to be a very sensory-rich experience. With our own body, let alone our partner’s, we can receive stimulus from:
If that wasn’t enough already, we can also receive internal information from:
- interoception (how we feel e.g. hungry, cold)
- proprioception (body position and pressure, e.g. how hard to hug someone without hurting them)
- vestibular information (movement, balance, and where we are in space e.g. how to undress without falling over).
To put this in the context of neurodivergence, let’s use the model of sensory processing developed by Winnie Dunn, an Occupational Therapist. She looked at 2 aspects:
- How sensitive to stimuli you are (high or low neurological threshold)
- How you self-regulate these stimuli (active or passive self-regulation).
3. How sensitive to stimuli are you?
For some neurodivergent people, they may not particularly notice changes in stimuli. This could include their own changes in breathing rate, body temperature, or other signs of arousal. This is called hyposensitivity. This happens when someone has a high threshold for sensory processing. It means they need a larger than average amount of external input to notice changes. This can result in needing stronger flavoured food, not noticing when they’re cold or in pain, or having to touch things multiple times. They may enjoy leaning on doorframes or other objects to help locate themselves in space.
In contrast, some neurodivergent people find all of these sensations far too much and even overwhelming, uncomfortable, or painful. This is because they have a lower than average threshold so it takes less for them to feel (over)stimulated. These are people who might avoid eye contact and feel the whole room is pulsing when lit by fluorescent lighting. They might struggle to sleep and use specialised or noise-cancelling headphones. For people who are hypersensitive, even non-sexual touch can elicit a ‘flight-or-fight’ response, which can be a form of intimacy overwhelm.
From a neurotypical perspective, high threshold people are often accused of being “self-absorbed” or “in their own world” and low threshold people can be seen as “fussy” or “overly sensitive”.
4. How do you regulate this input?
Now you know if you’re high or low threshold, let’s turn to the second point. How you cope with the incoming information?
You may be active in your self-regulation if you crave stimuli, desire a lot of input and interactions with your body. For example, using weighted blankets or massages, doing combat sports, or wearing specific types of fabrics such as fur or velvet. Or you may take steps to avoid certain stimuli such as cutting all labels out of clothes, or avoid wearing perfumes, or changing the types of lightbulbs in your home.
If you’re more passive in how you process input, then you may not eat even when you’re hungry, or feel uncomfortably hot wearing a coat in warm weather but not connect that sensation with needing to take off your coat. Or you may find you need longer to answer people’s questions or requests, and others are confused by your silence or apparent lack of response.
Let’s put these two factors together. Take a moment to locate yourself and reflect on the diagram below. This diagram is a general one for Dunn’s model not specific for sex. (Personally, I’d replace “Registration” with “Resignation” and “Sensitivity” with “Overwhelm”.)
5. What's your sensory processing type?
It’s worth mentioning that we tend to have a “home” quadrant but we can move along the axes depending on our mood, energy levels, company etc. Generally, I’m very sensory seeking, until I’ve run out of spoons and then I can be so drained that even the smell of looking at electric lights makes me gag.
The aim of this article is to offer a frame of reference to help you locate and recognise yourself. For some people, just seeing this and working out where they’re located can be revelatory.
There is no shame in having a completely different experience and inner world to other people, whatever you may have internalised or been told in the past from the dominant neurotypical society.
The next article looks at sex and arousal through the lens of sensory processing. This article explains the 3 most popular models of sexual arousal, which tend to work better for neurotypical than neurodivergent people. My understanding is that arousal for neurodivergent people can be significantly impacted by three key factors: anxiety, communication, and change.
The aim of article 2 is to help you understand yourself better in terms of sensory sensitivity and regulation, and how this translates into your intimate preferences and desires.