Keep Them Coming: Neurodivergence and sexual connection

Illustration by Shelby Phelps

You may have noticed that the term “neurodivergent” is gaining traction across social media platforms. Neurodivergence includes conditions such as ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) that affect the way people process information and interact with the world. This is a complex topic with wide-ranging impacts on life, including sexual activity and relationships. 

Having coached people who are neurodivergent (ND) and their often neurotypical partners, I think that the issues faced in their relationships are not exclusive to being ND, nor are they unique, but the issues may be dialed up in some regards. For instance, plenty of couples may have challenges around communication, but folks that are neurodivergent may experience miscommunications of epic proportions. People with sensory issues may feel discouraged from acting out a fantasy because they aren’t sure if the sensation will trigger them. 

Let’s explore the intersection of neurodivergence and sexuality, how to level up the communication when one or both of you is ND, and ways to adapt your relationship to allow for shameless sexual expression.

Social media has created a shift in our ability to access information, especially content about how our brains work. While obviously a diagnosis can’t happen by watching some videos, there’s a growing contingency of adults who have been able to identify behaviors in themselves because of TikTok, leading them to see a medical provider and get an official ASD or ADHD diagnosis. Figuring out you are neurodivergent as an adult can provide self-awareness, give you clarity via hindsight, and also be a total fucking mindfuck.

There is an abysmal lack of research about ND adults and their interpersonal relationships. Most studies about ASD and ADHD have been conducted on toddlers and adolescents. 

“The research literature about love, sex, and ADHD is small, but it is consistent,” says Stephen Faraone, Ph.D., in a 2020 blog.

Individuals with ASD may experience challenges in social communication, especially non-verbal cues such as eye contact, which postulates that it will be more difficult to later navigate romantic relationships. ADHD can also affect relationship quality by causing impulsivity, inattentiveness, and forgetfulness. It can seriously impact self-regulation, which can lead to misunderstandings and relationship conflict. 

Sensory processing issues (aka “icks”) can definitely interfere with sexual connection. For instance, individuals with ASD may be more sensitive to touch, textures, or sounds from the textures, which can make sexual activity uncomfortable or overwhelming, and it can stop them from trying a sex act.

Many late-diagnosis ND folks start connecting the dots about why previous relationships didn’t work or why sex was never good for them, as well as why they might be currently unhappy in their marriage. 

“So for people who are late diagnosed—whether you find out on TikTok, which a lot of people did—it was like, ‘Wait a minute. What is this?’ And then it shakes your entire world,” says Chelsia Potts, Ed.D., a Kansas City native and social media creator who specializes in neurodivergence. “What if you realize that the person you’re married to is not a good match?”

Faraone says, “When my colleagues and I studied 1,001 adults in the community, we found that adults with ADHD endorsed less stability in their love relationships, felt less able to provide emotional support to their loved ones, experienced more sexual dysfunction, and had higher divorce rates.”

Masking, which is a process many neurodivergent people use, is a combination of using a persona that is palatable for others’ consumption and using techniques such as forcing eye contact to hide or fit in with neurotypical people. 

Potts says, “It’s not good to live your life in a masked state for other people because that’s—not to me—what life is about. And I think sometimes, as neurodivergent people, we can get so stuck in our head—what we’re not doing right, never feeling like we’re catching up.”

It’s understandable why some people take no action despite intense discomfort or unhappiness with their sex lives and relationships. 

“You can ‘remask’—I think a lot of people do it in relationships if they want to keep it. They may say, ‘I’m just going to keep on acting like things are normal so I won’t disrupt,’” says Potts.

Communication: This doesn’t mean one partner gets to suck ass at it and the other has to grin and bear it. Couples, where one or both are neurodivergent, have to learn to draw their own map—you are unique individuals, and the way others navigate their relationship may not be the path for you. Find the workarounds. Create safeguards, such as check-ins or weekly conversations to connect. Attend couples therapy. Put systems in place to make up for time blindness.

For couples, addressing sensory processing issues can be an important step in improving sexual experiences together. Find ways to accommodate sensory needs during sexy time. For example, do a Pleasure Mapping session. 

In this activity, start with setting a comfortable mood: lighting, music, scents, and textures on the bed. Next, get naked together. Use your hands, mouths, and alternative forms of touch (such as feathers or vibrators), play with temperature, and use soft to harder touch. Explore each other’s bodies. 

Guide each other as though you were creating a new map of your bodies. You’re learning the lay of the land together. Gently and directly say things like, “Harder… softer… slower… yes… not doing much but try this instead… mmmhmmm…” to get the sensations you want and avoid the rest. You can even place your hand over theirs to show them what you want and where you want it. Consider adding noise-canceling headphones or an eye mask. Some people think those things are a little kinky, while others use them as tools to help reduce sensory overload. 

Learn to be authentically you. 

“Unmasking—for some people—may be coming out and realizing what their true sexuality is or accepting it,” says Potts. “I’ve known people with recent diagnoses who came out as asexual, who came out as ethically non-monogamous, and who came out as gay.”

By openly discussing preferences and concerns, couples can work together to create a comfortable and enjoyable sexual experience. Shaming your partner’s behaviors that are a product of their neurodivergence won’t move your relationship forward. Check your judgments at the door. 

Remember that neurodivergent individuals may process information differently, and it may take time for them to express themselves or respond. Being patient and compassionate can create a supportive and inclusive communication environment. If a partner needs time to walk away and process, give it to them. Not all issues need to be solved in one conversation. They may also need to use mediums such as writing letters to express themselves. 

Be collaborative and curious. Practice active listening with one another. This is not just for the ND partner. You can both benefit from listening to understand what the other person is saying rather than listening to respond. Be supportive of establishing systems together that make your household and your relationship function more smoothly. When you have more time and mental reserves not being utilized on executive functioning, you have more space for intimacy and eroticism. 

You can find Kristen @OpenTheDoorsKC on Twitter or openthedoorscoaching com

Categories: Culture