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Disability on Valentine's Day: Romance, Sex, and Sensory Sensitivity

Author: Tsara Shelton
Author Contact: @TsaraShelton on Twitter
Published: 3rd Feb 2023
Peer-Reviewed Publication: N/A
Additional References: Tsara's Column Publications

Summary: Autism and Sexuality questions answered by Dr. Lynette Louise, The Brain Broad.



Autism is a brain development disorder characterized by impaired social interaction and communication, restricted repetitive behavior, and sensory sensitivity. The symptoms manifest differently and to varying degrees in each afflicted individual.

Main Document

People with disabilities, visible and invisible, are often overlooked in a romantic capacity. It's not untrue that romance and sex might need to be explored, performed, and experienced in uncommon ways for them, but it is untrue that romantic intimacy should not be theirs.

Love and romance are in the air! Chocolates in heart shaped boxes, roses at the checkout, Valentine's Day is clearly around the bend.

And then there are the sexier gifts. Edible undies, penis shaped lollies, toys for the bedroom. Fun year round but perhaps newly explored with February 14th as an opening. (An opening to new openings, perhaps? giggle!)

People around the globe will be dining and dancing in the name of love. Sipping and snuggling with an extra air of romance.

Others will forget. Some simply won't care. Some will be hurting.

Plenty will be forgotten and overlooked almost entirely, with the assumption being that this is not a holiday for them, not really.

People with disabilities, visible and invisible, are often overlooked in a romantic capacity. It's not untrue that romance and sex might need to be explored, performed, and experienced in slightly - or extremely - uncommon ways for them, but it is untrue that romantic intimacy should not be theirs.

Romantic love and sexual expression are for people who want them.

That's not to say it does not need to be learned. We all need to learn. Particularly when it comes to love and sex, where the messages are often conflicting, beliefs are strongly held, and desires are innate.

As my readers know, I have four brothers who were diagnosed with autism, along with a variety of other disorders, when my mom adopted them. One of my brothers is married and has an adorable daughter. One has been in a long term committed and monogamous relationship for over three years. Another has been engaged but then he broke it off. And my baby brother is almost always single and fairly happy that way, though he does get lonely for friends now and then. They have all had romantic love and sex in their lives.

My brothers, all four of them, are grateful to our mother for being candid, fierce, clear, and caring when teaching about the birds and the bees. More than that, they've had romantic and sexual experiences that were only made possible by the sheer force of my mom's belief in their right to have these experiences, to learn from them, and to discover who they were, what they wanted, and what they could give to any partners in return.

If I could, I would go back in time and record hundreds of the conversations, lessons, freedoms, and lectures my mom and brothers worked through. I would use them as impressive guides and teaching tools for other parents, and the world.

Unfortunately, I don't have a time machine that will work for this purpose.

So, instead, I asked my mom to answer a few questions. (I confess, the questions are not mine. I came across them because a reporter had been asking.)

You know what? Maybe this is better than a time machine. Because back then, when we were growing up, my mom was certain of her love for my brothers and her belief in them, but she was yet to have the proof that her pushing and guiding was going to turn out well. Now, with where they are, how well they're doing, and what my brothers say, there is proof!

More than that even, now my mom travels the world helping families and individuals with romantic and sexual problems arising during puberty, young adulthood, and more. So maybe it's best we aren't going backwards in time.

My mom, Dr. Lynette Louise ("The Brain Broad"), is a former romance therapist who is now an international brain change and behavior expert specializing in autism.

I am the oldest of her eight kids (six adopted, four with autism) and watching her teach my brothers led me to see the great need our world has for more inclusive and clear teaching regarding sexuality. I am almost certain that if I hadn't been poised to learn what I was taught because of my brothers, I would not have understood the insidious cruelty of not making changes in our sexual and romantic culture. It's not only insidious and cruel for people with differences or disabilities, but it is because of them that I can see clearer the unhealthy messages we are all consuming.

(It is why I write for the Sexual Diversity website.)

So, let's let my mom guide us then.

Question: Does autism impact sexual behavior or sexuality?

Dr. Lynette Louise: Yes, of course it does. Intimacy is a sensory experience, and people with autism have a heightened sensitivity to sensory input. A person with autism may have an extreme distaste for certain smells or an intense excitability from certain textures. Regardless of the severity of the disorder, these sensory issues are bound to influence sexual behavior.

Question: Does autism influence sexual orientation or gender?

Dr. Lynette Louise: It can, yes. And in large part due to the aforementioned sensory sensitivities. When a person has a heightened sensitivity to sensory input it can be easier, and feel safer, to relate to someone of the same gender. There are more familiar textures, smells, and sounds. Alternatively, it can cause uncomfortable sensory reactions to their own body or gender. There is still more to learn in this area, and we continue to do so.

Question: How important is sexual education for someone living with autism?

Dr. Lynette Louise: It is highly important, all the way to the point of step-by-step instruction, especially related to clean up and privacy. However, it is even more important that the person doing the educating is comfortable and capable of non-judgemental teaching.

Question: What are some tips for navigating sexual relationships while living with autism (for the partner living with autism and the neurotypical partner)

Dr. Lynette Louise: Number one would be clarity on the when, where, and how. Be willing to discuss things you would normally, perhaps, simply engage in. This is good advice for both the neurotypical partner and the autistic one.

Number two: take no offense. You can play with sensory reactions to moles with hairs, or certain smells, but don't be offended by them.

Number three: turn special interests into fetish play. An example could be someone who is extremely into automobiles might find it exciting to have "vroom, vroom," sounds during foreplay or upon entering. If this offends you, you're in the wrong relationship. If this embarrasses you and you are unable or unwilling to get over it, you're in the wrong relationship.

These are short answers, but they're actionable.

Clearly, there is so much more that can be explored in the areas of romance and autism, and if you have questions feel free to contact her. (You can visit her webiste here:

But if you start here, with the understanding that everyone can be desirous and deserving of romance and sex, and with the willingness to be sensitive to sensory sensitivities and clear about intentions and actions, that is not a small something.

And if you want more, you can visit the Sexual Diversity video series with my mom by clicking on the following links:

Sexual Diversity: Autism (Video One)

Sexual Assault and the Special Needs Person (Video Two)

Preventing a Perpetrator (Video Three)

Pleasure on the Spectrum (Video Four)

Whether you are planning a Valentine's Day with or without romance, I hope you spend it feeling love.

Whoever you are.


Author Credentials:

Tsara Shelton, author of Spinning in Circles and Learning From Myself, is a contributing editor to Tsara's personal blog can be found at Keep up to date with Tsara's latest writings by following @TsaraShelton on Twitter.

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• (APA): Tsara Shelton. (2023, February 3). Disability on Valentine's Day: Romance, Sex, and Sensory Sensitivity. Retrieved September 23, 2023 from

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