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BDSM on the Spectrum

Some elements of autism may carry a link to an affinity for kink.
Aria Vega
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Aria Vega

Editor's note: Some of the sources for this article requested their full names and locations not be used.

The world's understanding of autism has gone through seismic shifts in the past few decades. For one, clinicians now call the condition autism spectrum disorder (ASD), thanks in part to British psychiatrist Lorna Wing, who coined the term "autism spectrum" in the 1980s.

The idea of a spectrum for autism, which includes a host of social, behavioral and communication challenges, also supports the even newer notion of ASD as a presentation of neurodiversity, a nonpathological framework for understanding certain disparities in brain function as differences instead of deficits.

Clearly, we're still growing our knowledge about autism spectrum disorder. But some of the gaps in that knowledge are glaring, especially regarding the connection between autism, sexuality and kink. While there's still little to no formal research on the relationship between these experiences, anecdotal evidence does point to common ground.

Perhaps the most obvious link between experiencing ASD and experiencing BDSM, or kinks in general, is the association with intense sensory input. (BDSM is a compound acronym that stands for bondage, discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism.) People with ASD often have a heightened sensitivity to light, sound or smells. This disposition can fit well in a dungeon setting where intention and control are used.

Beau, 26, is an autistic, kinky switch whose preferred sensory experiences during a BDSM scene include impact play, restraint (such as with a harness) and sensory deprivation. Given their autism, Beau said, "Sometimes I find sensory input to be so overwhelming, and it can be nice to have that taken away from me."

This is why they especially enjoy being deprived of sight, via either blindfolds or a darkened room. Beau shared that they're so sensitive to visual input, even prescription eyeglasses can become a nuisance.

"Very often, I'll just not wear them, because having clear vision can become too overstimulating," they said.

No power, just pain

In a BDSM scene, exchanging intense physical sensations with a partner is often part of a predetermined power dynamic, which delivers a psychosocial component. However, that's not always the case, especially when autistic folks are involved. Kink enthusiast River, 38, recently discovered this firsthand.

River, who is autistic, enjoys a wide range of sensations, including bondage, temperature play and electrostimulation. Though she favors bottoming in BDSM play, she's known to switch it up when playing with people she trusts. This can lead to some unique experiences, such as a recent impact scene with a friend who also has ASD and a love of big sensations.

"We spent about an hour going back and forth with a variety of implements," River said. "There was no roleplay and no serious tone; instead, there was quite a bit of giggling amid the yelps of pain. It was a nonsexual experience that involved no power exchange at all, and I have noticed that other kinksters find this kind of play very unusual."

For River, who is asexual and doesn't experience sexual attraction, kink and BDSM are nonsexual experiences that provide other benefits, such as building intimacy with a partner. She's been the submissive in a 24/7 Dom/sub relationship for 16 years and says she "wouldn't have it any other way."

For autistic folks, kink and BDSM can be far more than a fun pastime. They can also provide a respite from the stifling social conventions that dictate daily life. For Beau, who said they constantly "mask" their neurodivergence in regular interactions, being in a submissive role under a trusted person's guidance and control is one of the few settings in which that masking isn't necessary.

"I'm constantly having to control what I do, what I say, whether I'm holding myself a certain way," Beau said.

Generally speaking, Beau is a switch, but with their current partner, they're submissive, which feels like a huge relief.

"I have someone literally telling me what to do and how to do it," Beau said.

The sexual and non-sexual social scene

Socializing in larger groups also feels a bit easier for Beau inside the BDSM scene than outside it, in part, because knowing they have a common interest with everyone at a play party makes it easier to start conversations. While many social gatherings are a minefield of subtle cues and daunting power dynamics, kinky folks are more likely to express clear boundaries or send out a code of conduct in advance if hosting an event.

For Bella, 30, a submissive from the United Kingdom, socializing is manageable in both kink and vanilla spaces. However, she said, "Socializing in BDSM spaces allows me the opportunity to be a bit 'weird' or to talk about things not acceptable in public."

Bella said because of her autism, she doesn't always have the ability to filter her speech, which can lead to awkward encounters.

"I often talk about things not appropriate for new people and I don't realize until after the fact," Bella said. "BDSM allows for that freedom of conversation."

While River appreciates the clear rules around consent and negotiation in kink spaces, plus the relaxed social mores, a dungeon still doesn't feel quite like a safe haven for her.

"BDSM spaces are also rife with sexual predators, and they seem to gravitate toward me," she said. "I always need to keep my guard up to a level that's much higher than the general public."

As both BDSM and the framework of neurodivergence become increasingly mainstream, more and more people will find themselves in the space where they overlap. With cooperation and a bit of luck, perhaps doctors and scientists will begin to collect proof of a neurological link between autism and kink.

In the meantime, autistic kinksters will surely keep connecting with each other. River is a frequent flyer in such social circles and often makes her status known.

"I tend to flag my ASD by wearing tinted glasses or neurodiversity stickers, or by allowing myself to stim," she said, referring to a self-stimulatory behavior.

It's a surefire way to find others in the scene who are navigating the spectrum.