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Research Summary

Sexual Behaviours, Vocabulary, and Orientations in Adults on the Autism Spectrum

Michelle Viecili | York University
This study examined issues of sexuality, including experiences and interests among adults. The researchers compared a group of autistic adults with adults in the general population.

What you need to know?

Adults with an ASD diagnosis have an interest in sexuality. They engage in sexual behaviours and understand sexual vocabulary similarly to those in the general population. Yet, differences exist in terms of sexual orientation.


What is the research about?

There is a lack of research that examines the sexual behaviours and sexual interests of adults who are autistic. Research in this area is important, as these adults exhibit deficits in the areas of social interaction and verbal and non-verbal communication. Previous studies have shown some differences in sexuality between adults with an ASD diagnosis and the general population.


What did the researchers do?

In this study the researchers compared two groups. One group was a sample of autistic adults (82 total) and the other was a sample of adults from the general population (282 total). Participants completed an online survey that asked demographic questions, as well as questions about:


•sexual knowledge (sexual vocabulary);

•sexual experiences (examining experiences ranging from kissing to intercourse);

•and sexual orientation (heterosexuality, bisexuality, homosexuality, asexuality).


Each type of sexual orientation was rated on a scale of how much the participant endorsed that orientation.


What did the researchers find?

Researchers found that adults with autism and those in the general population did not differ in their sexual experiences or their understanding of sexual vocabulary. Researchers found that autistic adults were significantly more likely to indicate higher scores than the general population on the measures of:


•bisexuality (ASD group average = 4.47 and control group average = 1.60);

•homosexuality (ASD group average = 4.71 and control group average = 1.16);

•and asexuality (ASD group average = 1.29 and control group average = 0.27).


They also compared male and female autistic participants. Most scales did not significantly differ except for the heterosexuality scale. They found that female participants with an ASD diagnosis had significantly lower scores on the measure of heterosexuality than male participants with an ASD diagnosis. This difference was not seen between males and females in the control group.


How can you use this research?

This research helps further our understanding of sexuality and autism by informing us that sexual orientation may express itself differently in those on the autism spectrum compared to the general population. Also, sexuality differs between males and females with an ASD diagnosis in terms of heterosexuality. This research is relevant to clinicians, parents, support workers, and most importantly, autistic individuals.


About the researcher

Laura Gilmour is a graduate student in Educational Psychology at Grant MacEwan University whose research focuses on special education and ASD. Laura has a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome and has a blog where she discusses articles relating to ASD (

Dr. Melike Schalomon is a professor and department chair of Psychology at Grant MacEwan University, whose research focuses on comparative neuroanatomy and human sexuality.

Dr. Veronica Smith is an Associate Professor in the area of Psychological Studies in Education within the Department of Educational Psychology in the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta.



Gilmour, L., Schalomon, P.M., & Smith, V. (2012). Sexuality in a community based sample of adults with autism spectrum disorders. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 6(1), 313-318.



This research summary was written by Michelle Viecili for the Chair in Autism Spectrum Disorders Treatment and Care Research. This research summary, along with other summaries, can be found on our blog and at

Reproduced with the permission of Dr. Jonathan Weiss (York University). This research summary was developed with funding from the Chair in ASD Treatment and Care Research. The Chair was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research in partnership with Autism Speaks Canada, the Canadian Autism Spectrum Disorders Alliance, Health Canada, Kids Brain Health Network (formerly NeuroDevNet) and the Sinneave Family Foundation. This information appeared originally in the Autism Mental Health Blog (

Please note: AIDE Canada has altered the identity language in this document from it's original. The language has been updated to reflect the emerging preferences of the adult self-advocates in the autism community. In some places the term "autistic adult" has replaced the previous, person first language. 

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash


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