As everyone has probably noticed, the media (both professional and social) has lately been a firestorm of controversy surrounding the politics of consent.
I have my own very strong opinions on the overall topic, but I’d like to set all of that aside for now and take a moment to focus on one small aspect of the conversation:
What’s the best way for an autistic person who struggles with social cues to navigate consent?
The majority of comments I’ve seen and heard from autistic people is that difficulty picking up on cues doesn’t excuse disregarding those cues.
“If you can’t understand non verbal cues it’s your job to ask for verbal consent,”—Anonymous autistic Facebook user
“In my opinion it’s ableist to assume autistic people are incapable of recognizing non-consent,”—Anonymous autistic Facebook user
Regardless, and likely in part because of this, I’ve also been seeing a lot of social media posts, comments, and blogs from autistic people expressing anxiety about their own ability to interpret consent.
One man wrote,
“I was toying with the idea of never initiating and informing any potential partners that the onus is on them, but looking back at it with a fresh head, I realize this is either unfeasible or taking responsibility out of my hands. So I guess, how can we autistic guys do better.”
As autistic people, we already know we need to manually learn more nuanced social communication. And when it comes to something even neurotypicals obviously struggle with, the stakes can feel even more dire.
So, of course my know-it-all self is going to jump in!
When I first moved to New York City I started making friends in the polyamory community. They’re very welcoming people, tolerant of weirdness, and surprisingly autism-friendly because of their obsession with clear communication.
Something I really like about poly people is how much emphasis they put on normalizing consent. I assume as a consequence of adapting to a romantic life that requires intense levels of communication, consent culture has made its way into every aspect of the poly social world—normal social gatherings included!
Once, years ago, I was new to the city, hanging out at a party with my poly friends. I was talking to a stranger (who was unaware of my diagnosis) about something or other. He talked with his hands quite a bit, and at one point moved to touch my arm to emphasize a point, the way neurotypicals sometimes do. Mid-motion, he stopped himself and said “do you mind if I touch you?”
To my autistic, touch-sensitive self, it was amazing! Mind-blowing! Miraculous! The clouds parted and angels sang.
I think I said something like, “Thanks for asking, I actually don’t really like to be touched in conversation.” He said, “Ok cool thanks for letting me know,” and the conversation continued on as normal.
That brief moment completely changed my world. I was astonished at how much more comfortable I felt at this party, knowing that people were going to ask me before touching me. When it was time to leave, and the friend that brought me was hugging everyone goodbye, someone turned to me smiling and said “are you a hugger?” We high fived instead.
So my rule is, when in doubt, I emulate what I learned from my poly friends: Ask!
And I promise it’s possible to ask without making things awkward, despite what media talking heads, college guys, and porn like to imply.
Are you staring deep into someone’s eyes (ew eye contact) wondering if it’s ok to kiss them? Say, “can I kiss you?”
It really is that simple.
I know I personally always appreciate having scripts on file, so here’s a small list of further phrasing ideas:
- “Can I touch you?”
- “Is this ok?”
- “Just let me know if anything is uncomfortable”
- “Does this feel ok?”
- “How do you like to be touched? Light or firm?”
- “Should I get a condom?”
- “Do you want to keep going?”
- “How far are you ok with going tonight?”
- “Are you ok?”
When in doubt: ASK. If you’re just assuming the answer: ASK. If you’re hoping for a yes and don’t want to ask in case they say no: ASK. If you’re trying to “convince” someone to have sex with you: Stop, and ASK! Always.