Sex, Love, & Marriage Through The Eyes Of An Autistic Woman

Photo courtesy of Submarine.
Dina Buno and her fiancé Scott sit in her living room watching Sex In The City. As Samantha engages in one of her many sexual adventures on screen, Dina leans over ever so slightly and says, "I like butts. I'm a butt girl." It's the beginning of a fun conversation between partners, but it's also more than that, because even though Dina and Scott are both adults and are about to get married, they haven't had sex. In fact, Scott has a hard time talking about sex at all, and Dina is trying to help him open up.
Both Dina and Scott are on the autism spectrum, which can make sex and conversations about sex more difficult. Some autistic people struggle with understanding social cues like flirting, have anxiety about the unknown, or need to live by a routine (whereas sex is often spontaneous). But just because a sexual relationship might require more communication for autistic people, doesn't mean they don't (or can't) have sex — a common misconception Dina is eager to break.
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That's why she agreed to share intimate details about her life and relationship with Scott in an award-winning documentary that follows the couple leading up to their wedding and honeymoon. Co-directors Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles wanted to tell Dina's story for the same reason.
"When I met Dina, she showed us a manuscript for a memoir about her life," Santini tells Refinery29. "We felt that she was bubbling with all this stuff she wanted to express. Her diagnosis came with being denied. She was told that flirting, love, and marriage aren't for her."
The documentary, simply titled Dina, gives her the space to express her sexuality and normalizes her experience. Yes, Dina and Scott are both on the autism spectrum, which means that their sex lives are in some ways very different from those of people who aren't autistic. But many of the conversations they have are conversations every person interested in sex should be having with their partners — difficult conversations about exploring and asking for what you want from your sex life.
We talked with Dina about how she worked up the courage to have those conversations, the challenges she and Scott face in their sex lives, and how they're doing now.
How did you bring up the conversation of sex with Scott?
"The conversation is still ongoing, but it's gotten better. In the early days, we were going on dates and holding hands and giving each other massages and stuff. There was no stress, because it was the early years.
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"Then the subject came up that I would really like to invite this guy to spend the night with me. The thought crossed my mind that this time I should wait until I get married, but then it might never happen. I asked him, 'Would you ever be interested in getting this far?' Scott was like, 'Sure.' He was having trouble talking about it even. I said, 'Well, it’s not going to happen right now.' But we would watch TV and I’d say, 'God he’s really good-looking and I like what they’re doing,' when they’d kiss. So it was a constant thing going on. I kept bringing it up."
Can you explain some of the challenges you and Scott had in talking about sex?
"Well, I’m more of a cuddly person. I’m more of a bouncy kangaroo type. I like cuddles and back rubs. I like giving hugs and stuff — there were some texture issues with touching for him.
"I’ve had more experience, even before I met Scott, because I was married to my beloved John, who passed away. So it’s been quite the challenge to tell Scott that it’s okay when you love each other to touch and feel comfortable. I have to help him to break that image that touching is a bad thing."
And how is Scott feeling now? Are you still having these kinds of conversations regularly?
"It would be really nice if we got further. I tried even harder when he told me I could be the one he marries — he talked about it on our first anniversary that we could probably get engaged. But bringing sex up still feels very difficult.
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"I was very worried because I thought, 'Wow, how to explain to Scott that everybody has needs, and it’s okay to express them and you don’t have to keep them bottled up?' I want to tell him that love and sex and making love is beautiful to me with the right person. But I also had to step back and think about him and how he was feeling. He had never, for one, had sexual relations."
A lot of people struggle with asking for what they want from a sexual partner. How did you find the courage?
"I’m very open with my communication. I'm more likely to talk about it than push it under the rug. I’ve worked at this because I’ve been in therapy and I’ve discussed this with my mother and had role models like my aunt and female friends I’m very close with. They've told me that it’s okay to have these feelings, so I constantly bring up these conversations. Scott will try to push it under the rug and I’ll be like, 'Do I have a nice figure to you?' Sometimes he ends up putting himself down, and I don’t get that stuff because he’s a sweetheart and I want him to be happy. So I’m constantly working at this."
How do you feel about where your relationship and your sex life is now?
"I would like our intimacy to go much further than where it is now. And I want to be open and honest with Scott, but also with other people. I’m working on a book because I want other people to learn from this. I speak at conferences and one question I always get is, 'Can autistic people have sex?' I get very frustrated when people have this view, because of course we can! So one of my goals is to teach people that people on the spectrum can fall in love and have intimacy."
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What do you hope to get out of these conversations, and sharing these moments of your life with so many people?
"1. I want to have sex. 2. I want Scott to have pleasure. And 3. I want to prove to the world that autistic people have sex lives, too. My mom tried very hard to say I could have what everybody else has, even though there were a lot of people who said, 'Stuff like this isn’t for you, marriage is not for you.'
"I speak about love and intimacy and I mean what I say, but I’m a human being and we all suffer somewhere. Letting my life unfold in front of everybody’s eyes is difficult. I'm hoping all of this leads to more and that it helps people."
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