Supporting Healthy Intimate Relationships

Brenda Dater, MSW, MPH

Brenda Dater, MSW, MPH

About the Author

Brenda Dater, MSW, MPH, is the executive director at AANE and the author of “Parenting Without Panic.” Brenda is a mom of three, and her eldest is an Autistic transgender woman. Brenda has facilitated parent support groups for over 20 years and thoroughly enjoys creating an environment where parents can find the support, information, and the community they need.

Throughout my years working at AANE, and being the mom of an Autistic Trans daughter, I’ve had many conversations about sexuality. I’ve noticed two major themes emerging from these discussions with parents, Autistic adults, and my own adult daughter. First, Autistic adults often define intimacy and sexuality more expansively and don’t necessarily hold themselves to rigid or permanent labels in terms of who they are attracted to and want to have intimate relationships with. Second, parents want their offspring to find love and close connections so that they aren’t lonely or isolated and can experience the joy and fulfillment of love. At the same time and regardless of their Autistic child’s sexual orientation, parents often worry that their children will be too trusting when shown kindness or affection and won’t be able to discern when others are trying to take advantage of them. One core theme emerges: the deep desire is for the Autistic individual to find a mutually intimate connection with another person and feel appreciated and loved just as they are.

My daughter gave me permission to share how her sexuality has evolved over time and some of the experiences she is currently navigating. Before my Autistic daughter came out as Transgender, she said she was asexual. When she would talk to me about her sexuality, she would say that she felt love for others and wanted to be close to them, but didn’t want a sexual relationship. She found a large asexual community of Autistic adults to talk to online and felt very seen and validated. She didn’t feel like a sexual relationship was missing from her life, but she did want closeness and intimacy. Intimacy means so much more than having sex. It encompasses being able to be vulnerable with another person and having their support, feeling cared for and caring for another person’s wellbeing, and finding joy and contentment from interactions. And of course, it also means learning how to negotiate and recover from the inevitable annoyances, disagreements, and miscommunications that occur when we are in a close relationship with other people.

Once Rachel came out as Transgender, she was very clear she was attracted to people who identify as women and no longer defined herself as asexual. Just as she had found the asexual community prior to coming out as Trans, she found ways to meet and interact with Queer women in person and online. For the past five months, she has had a girlfriend who she met online from another state. Later this month, we will be traveling to that state so that Rachel can meet her girlfriend in person for the first time.

I have always wanted Rachel to have the closeness, connection, trust, and love that can grow from having an intimate relationship that is right for her, and I want her to have that with whomever she is attracted to. And I think it’s very important for Rachel and her girlfriend to meet in person to see if their online connection translates to an in-person connection. It absolutely could, or, they may find that online is how they best interact. Whatever happens, they need the chance to learn more. 

But like all parents of any adult regardless of neurology or sexual orientation, our paramount desire is for her physical, emotional, and sexual safety. And like many people at the start of a relationship, we worry that Rachel may be overlooking some potential issues that are cause for concern. At the same time as we hold these concerns, we support her wish to have the relationship she wants. Finding someone who fills her deep desire for intimacy and who seems equally interested in her brings her so much happiness. 

When I talk with parents, their wish for their offspring to have connection and closeness with another person is tangled up with their concern that the relationship is a healthy one. I’ve seen this legitimate concern grow into overstepping boundaries and becoming more involved and controlling over an Autistic adult’s intimate relationships. Although the parental intention is to help their child avoid critical mistakes, it can result in the Autistic adult not having agency and being able to make decisions around who they are intimate with. So, like many parents, we walk the line between supporting our daughter’s agency and letting her make decisions about her own relationships, as she should, while also trying to provide perspectives around healthy relationships.

How do we make sure Rachel has the autonomy to make decisions about her close relationship and also support her in determining whether or not a relationship is healthy or if she might need help?

1. We have conversations about healthy relationships and red flags in general. When I had this conversation with Rachel, I let her know that I had the same conversation with her brothers when they started having relationships. Being manipulated or taken advantage of by others is a universal concern, not an Autistic-, Trans-, or Queer-specific concern. Rachel was better able to hear the message when she didn’t feel like it was directed only at her or because of her gender, sexuality, or disability.

2. We build in opportunities where we can also get to know her partner. We don’t want to be overly involved, but anytime our kids have had an intimate relationship, we offer to include their partners when appropriate. It gives us a chance to get to know each other and keeps us connected to our kids. 

3. We acknowledge that intimate relationships can bring both joy and difficulty. We have conversations about what mutual respect and trust looks like and maintaining self-worth independent of the relationship. If we see behavior changes in our kids, like an increase in depression or anxiety, or becoming isolated from us, we check in to see how they are doing and make sure they have a trusted person who can help them assess and resolve any relationship concerns, even if they don’t want us more involved. 

I’m thrilled that Rachel wants and has found intimacy with someone. I know it has been hard for her to watch others experience this joy and has felt left behind at times. My wish for her, as well as my other children, is to find relationships where they value each other, find joy in each other, celebrate and support each other, and have mutual care and respect.

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