Saturday, 8 July 2017

Self-reported sexual attraction and autism continued

"Attention to gender identity and sexual diversity in education and clinical work with people with ASD [autism spectrum disorder] is advised."

So said the findings reported by Jeroen Dewinter and colleagues [1] (open-access) adding to something of an important theme in autism research circles in recent times (see here). Drawing on self-reported responses for some 675 people diagnosed (self-reported diagnosis) with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) compared with over 8000 not-autism (self-reported?) controls on 9 questions, some interesting trends were observed. Those questions asked about information in relation to "assigned gender at birth, gender identity, sexual orientation (sexual attraction and sex of the partner), relationship status and evaluation of relationship status, duration of the relationship, living situation, and whether the partner has (or is suspected of having) ASD."

I mentioned that participants "self-reported a diagnosis on the autism spectrum" but to be fair, authors did also employ the Autism Spectrum Quotient—Short Version (AQ) "to assess autistic traits" of their ASD group. I've been a little critical of the AQ on other occasions on this blog (see here) but am willing to concede that as a rough-and-ready measure, it's about as good as we have at the moment.

Results: "Most men and women in the ASD group identified conforming their assigned gender at birth." Bearing in mind data on gender identity were not actually available for the control group, authors did note that about a quarter of women with ASD in their cohort and just short of 10% of men "reported some gender non-conforming feelings."

In terms of sexual orientation, researchers noted that: "Sexual orientation was more varied in ASD compared to controls in both men... and women." So: "Compared to general population peers, more people with ASD, especially women, reported sexual attraction to both same- and opposite-sex partners."

Relationship status was also something asked about during the study. Fewer participants with ASD reported being in a relationship at the time of inquiry compared with controls (50% vs. 70%) but for those in a relationship, most were living with their partner and most were pretty satisfied with their relationship. Yet also: "Of the singles, 29% regretted their relationship status" so one has to careful about sweeping generalisations.

There is quite a bit of important information included in this article but there are also caveats. Aside from the self-report angle to autism diagnoses, the question in my mind is: how representative is this sample in terms of the very heterogeneous autism spectrum? Y'know, self-report typically implies insight from the more 'able' end of the autism spectrum, or at least those able to self-report, and onward whether sweeping generalisations are necessarily warranted to covering the entire autism spectrum (see here). Bearing in mind also the gaps in some of the responses for the control group, I also wonder whether honesty could be a key variable when it comes to comparisons with the ASD group. I say this on the basis that very personal information about sexual identity and/or thoughts and feelings might be more honestly described by those with autism than those without autism. As the authors put it: "autistic participants being less influenced by societal views or stereotypes on attraction and gender." Such a suggestion could accord with other work looking at context effects in relation to autism [2].

The specific point about more women with ASD in the Dewinter study reporting greater levels of "sexual attraction to both same- and opposite-sex partners" and more "gender non-conforming feelings" adds to other independent findings in the peer-reviewed domain (see here). Again, such observations highlight how sex education in the context of autism (as indeed, in the context of the general population) needs to be inclusive of the spectrum of sexuality.


[1] Dewinter J. et al. Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, and Romantic Relationships in Adolescents and Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder. J Autism Dev Disord. 2017. June 9.

[2] Farmer GD. et al. People With Autism Spectrum Conditions Make More Consistent Decisions. Psychol Sci. 2017 Jun 1:956797617694867.