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Challenging Stereotypes: Sexual Functioning of Single Adults with High Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder

Saturday, 4 May 2013: 09:00-13:00
Banquet Hall (Kursaal Centre)
S. Nichols1, S. Byers2 and S. Voyer2, (1)ASPIRE Center for Learning and Development, Melville, NY, (2)Psychology, University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, NB, Canada
Background: Healthy and safe sexuality for individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) is an important developmental goal, yet it has received little empirical attention. What research has been done has focused primarily on negative markers and problematic sexual behavior. In order to be proactive and preventative, studies of the sexual well-being of individuals with ASDs need to address positive sexuality development and barriers to healthy sexuality.

Objectives: The aim of the current online study was to examine the sexual functioning of single adults (61 men, 68 women) with high functioning autism (HFA) and Asperger Syndrome (AS) (had received a score at or above the recommended cutoff (32 out of 50) on the Autism Quotient) living in the community with (n = 76) and without (n = 53) prior relationship experience (had been in a relationship of at least 3 months).

Methods: Participants completed a set of online questionnaires assessing autism symptoms, psychological functioning, and various aspects of sexual functioning. We examined whether men and women in the two relationship groups differed in their sexual functioning using a 2 (gender) X 2 (group) MANOVA with 10 sexual functioning variables (e.g., Sexual Knowledge, Sexual Anxiety, Sexual Arousability, Solitary Desire, Dyadic Desire) as dependent measures.  

Results: In general participants reported positive sexual functioning. Participants without prior relationship experience were significantly younger and more likely to be male and identify as heterosexual. They reported significantly higher sexual anxiety, lower sexual arousability, lower dyadic desire, and fewer positive sexual cognitions. The men reported better sexual function than did the women in a number of areas.     

Conclusions: This study contributes to the literature by providing information about how single men and women with HFA/AS living in the community experience their sexuality across a wide range of positive and negative domains. The results counter negative societal perceptions about the sexuality of high functioning individuals on the autism spectrum, and raise important issues for future study (e.g., understanding sexual preference, promoting women’s positive sexuality). These results must be interpreted in light of both the limitations and strengths of the study. As the study comprised an online community sample, we cannot be sure all participants met criteria for a diagnosis of ASD, and the results may have been affected by volunteer bias. However this research represents an important step in characterizing the sexual functioning of men and women with HFA/AS, a step that is particularly noteworthy because there has been so little research to date on sexuality and ASD.

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