Sex & Asperger’s Syndrome: An Interview with Dr. Amy Marsh

A few days ago, I interviewed Dr. Amy Marsh as part of the sex educator profile series. I was so intrigued by her work with people with Asperger’s Syndrome that I decided to interview her about it.

Tell us a little bit about Asperger’s Syndrome. How does it affect people? How does it affect relationships?

Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) seems to be part of the Autism spectrum, and it manifests very individually. However, most people with Autism seem to have difficulty deciphering non-verbal cues and social interactions. They are often very intelligent and creative and are focused on special interests – think Kinsey with his gall wasps, and then Kinsey with his sex research – and they tend to have a single-focused way of going about their life. They may often take language very literally and sometimes have a hard time knowing when people are lying or speaking metaphorically. They may not seem “that emotional” at times and at others, have melt downs when sensory stimulation becomes too much. Also, anxiety can be a huge factor for a lot of these folks.These are generalizations – it’s really much more complex.

Asperger’s Syndrome can affect relationships in a lot of different ways, but in intimate relationships between someone with a lot of AS traits and someone who does not have many traits, it seems common for the non-AS person to feel somewhat emotionally starved and/or bewildered by how to get along. Part of this has to do with the non-AS person’s socialization and expectations of how relationships are “supposed to be.” Sensory integration issues can also make things more complicated, especially sexually.

How did you get interested in this branch of human sexuality?

I did some survey research into Asperger’s Syndrome and sexuality while I was at school at the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality. As a sexologist, I can tell you this topic is endlessly fascinating and largely unexplored.

But I chose the topic originally because I was involved with a very dear lover who drove me nuts. I couldn’t figure the relationship out until the little light bulb went on over my head and I started researching Asperger’s Syndrome. He didn’t want a label, of course, and I didn’t really want to give him one. But when I started observing his behavior closely and acting “as if” he had AS traits, our relationship improved. A lot of this was because I adjusted my expectations and could appreciate him for who he was.

When I did the survey, I wanted to see if other people were having similar experiences, and dealing with similar issues. In many cases, the answer was yes. This has also taught me a lot about my own neuro-quirks, and where I might also be dancing on the edges of some of the traits. There’s a reason I have an affinity for intelligent, eccentric people.

What are some of the things that folks with Asperger’s and their partners need in order to create pleasurable relationships?

First of all, all partners need to think about who they are and how they operate – sensually, sexually, emotionally, intellectually, physically. If some of the Asperger’s Syndrome explanations or descriptions fit, fine. If not, don’t worry about it. The non-AS partner, if there is one, needs to read a ton of books on the topic even so, and again, be prepared to discard anything that doesn’t fit or feel right.

The non-AS person will probably be doing most of the apparent adjusting in the relationship, because the AS partner is usually working overtime just to deal with the anxiety and stresses of being around another person who has emotional and sexual expectations for the relationship. In other words, the non-AS person will feel he, she or ze is doing most of the work, but that’s because non-AS people don’t train themselves to look for what the AS person is doing and contributing. AS people are supposed to be socially “clueless” and rigid, but the truth is, the same is true for non-AS people, who have set certain standards for social and emotional interactions simply because they are in the majority.

Then, the partners should expect to use clear, concise language to work out boundaries, rules, and other things about the relationship. Sensory stuff should be discussed. Intimate time together should be planned so that the AS person doesn’t have to deal with the anxiety that comes from having to switch gears suddenly, as in “it’s a beautiful day, let’s go for a walk!”

Spontaneous suggestions generated by the non-AS person can often backfire. I had to really work to allow my old lover “transition time” when I saw him. He couldn’t just pull himself away from the computer and be present with me – it always took some time. Rituals are good too – and any semi-formal relationship structure will help – whether it’s tantra, BDSM, or a conventional monogamy with a lot of understood rules. Whatever works!

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced as an educator around these issues?

Getting the word out. Finding people who want to listen and learn. And not scaring people – mostly parents – who are active in the Autism community. Talking about sex – especially alternative sexualities – can be very scary for some people who are already very worried about their children, relatives, or spouses. But it’s really important to create and present good socio-sexual education, because people on the Autism spectrum are at high risk for abuse and bullying.

There is also the challenge of understanding that nothing I or anyone else can suggest is one size fits all. People really have to be willing to think about sex and relationships differently and to practice new skills, and to have some things just not work.

Tell us a bit about your web magazine. What inspired it? Why did you go with the web format?

I started The Intimate Aspie after I wrote a three-part column for Carnal Nation on this topic which got over 25,000 hits. I realized that there was a bigger demand for this information than I’d thought, but I wasn’t ready to write a whole book or series of lessons.

Also, a lot of the people who have contacted me about this issue are not here in the SF Bay Area. I have wanted to create a distance learning program and I think this magazine can be a part of that. Each issue can stand alone as a mini-lesson or work together to give a good overview.

I liked the MagCloud site, too – it is an easy to use, print on demand resource that I could use for free. I didn’t have to come up with capital to publish. They take a cut when someone orders the magazine. That’s it! Plus, I designed, wrote and published the magazine up in 2 1/2 days – which is pretty great!

Future issues will cover sensory integration issues, BDSM, and lots of other themes. I’m really excited about it!

Dr. Charlie Glickman

Charlie Glickman is the Education Program Manager at Good Vibrations. He also writes, blogs, teaches workshops and university courses, presents at conferences, and trains sexuality educators. He’s certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, and loves geeking out about sex, relationships, sex-positivity, love and shame, communities of erotic affiliation, and sexual practices and techniques of all varieties. Follow him online, on Twitter at @charlieglickman, or on Facebook.

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