Exploring autistic accounts of sexuality, intimacy, and authenticity

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis explores autistic people’s experiences of sexuality, intimacy, and authenticity. The cultural and scientific contexts in which autistic people and autism researchers are embedded tend to assume deficit, limitation or damage when considering social, sexual, or intimate autistic possibilities. These assumptions are omnipresent and stated as fact in much mainstream autism research, casting a pall over discussions of sexuality, intimacy, authenticity, and indeed any inter- or intra-personal endeavour undertaken by an autistic person.

Working within a framework of critical autism studies, and using a qualitative and participative methodology, the main thrust of this research involved a total of 24 in-depth interviews with 16 participants, leaning on Grounded Theory for data collection and analysis. An online survey with 567 respondents was also carried out, and a research website set up. A Research Advisory Group of nine autistic people provided input regarding appropriate research methods and instruments and piloted interviews, many communicating with me and each other through the research website’s private forum.

Findings show that the challenges experienced by participants as they set out on their intimate journeys had less to do with intrinsic difficulties linked to ‘being autistic’ than with the point of encounter with a hostile and alienating environment. This environment is one in which difference of any kind is policed and punished, and sexual and gender identities and behaviours other than cis-gendered heterosexuality are rendered invisible or undesirable. For many participants, an intimate future was initially unimaginable. The ways in which they move to resolve these unpromising beginnings, however, reveal themselves to be interwoven with participants’ autistic subjectivity, involving, inter alia, intense interests, accessing and creatively navigating diagnosis, and meeting and loving other autistic people. Running through and expressed within all these themes is the whisper of authenticity. When authenticity is threatened, so are intimate possibilities; when it is recognised and nurtured, it is revealed to be a highly valued quality, a central part of what it means to participants to ‘be autistic’, and an important step on the path to accessing and maintaining satisfying, safe, and meaningful intimate relationships.

Date of AwardJul 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SupervisorBronagh Byrne (Supervisor) & Dirk Schubotz (Supervisor)


  • autism
  • sexuality
  • Critical Autism Studies
  • authenticity

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