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Autism and Boundaries

I know, I know, it’s been a very long time since I posted. I’ve wanted to keep a consistent blog about traveling, but it just hasn’t worked out. A lot has changed since I first started writing this blog. I’m now sixteen, I’m learning how to drive, and I’m learning life skills that will be useful for when I’m an adult, one of those skills being how to set boundaries.

Boundaries are an important issue for everyone. When going about life, you have to set boundaries so you can protect yourself and feel secure. When someone crosses those boundaries, it can make you feel uncomfortable and in some cases, unsafe. Boundaries can be especially difficult for autistic people who have been taught how to act according to the norms of the world, even at the expense of their own well-being. Just like with non-autistic people, sometimes feeling a bit awkward in a social situation is inevitable. However, for many of us, it can be hard to gauge what is a reasonable boundary to set vs what is unreasonable.

Many autistic people have been taught how to blend in with the rest of society, which means staying in a space even when it is overwhelming, refraining from stimming, and maintaining eye contact. Oftentimes, autistic people have been taught from a young age to suppress their needs in order to fit in with societal norms in a world that wasn’t built for them, which can lead to becoming a people-pleaser. Growing up, I’ve learned that sometimes you have to advocate for yourself, especially if the situation is going to put you in danger, but sometimes it’s normal to experience discomfort for the sake of the group. For example, if you go on a long hike with a group and you step in a puddle and your shoe is wet, it would be unreasonable to make everyone else go back just so you can get a pair of shoes. However, if you get bit by a wild animal on a long hike and you are bleeding profusely, it would definitely be reasonable to make people go back so you can get help from a medical professional. So ask yourself- is the situation you are in a puddle or a wild animal bite? 

I think that women and girls are often taught to be polite and to refrain from speaking up when they feel unsafe or find themselves in an unpleasant situation. While there is a cultural shift for women to be more assertive, many girls are taught from a young age that they have to be polite no matter what. For autistic women and girls, this can present a greater issue. Oftentimes, autistic young girls are taught to be accommodating to others and ignore their social needs. Too often, they are taught that other people can trample their boundaries and they have to be okay with it. Frequently, they aren’t taught how to manage unwanted social situations while still being decent or how to assert their needs. Even though my parents and teachers have tried to teach me how to advocate for myself, sometimes this is hard.

Setting boundaries has been something I’m working on. As an autistic girl, setting boundaries can be more difficult, but luckily the world gives me ample opportunities to practice. For a few months this year, I attended a social skills group that worked with autistic youth and young adults. In this social group I met a guy, let’s call him Peter. Peter was in college and he was four years older than me. He seemed nice and at the end of the group meeting, he asked for my Snapchat. I was unsure of what to make of it at the moment, but I gave it anyway, since I could end communication easier with a social media handle than a phone number. 

We started texting over Snapchat that evening, I felt pretty good about it and it was fun that evening. However, I didn’t want to communicate with Peter long term. He seemed nice, but I wasn’t interested in pursuing any kind of friendship with him. He complimented me a lot, but it felt like he complimented me way too much. We did call once for about twenty minutes, but it was kind of awkward and I didn’t want to call him again. 

I asked Mom for some advice on what to do and I let her look through the texts. She concluded that Peter did not seem to have malicious intent, but rather that he was socially awkward. She also said that I don’t have to be polite to people I don’t want to talk to, and that I should set communication boundaries. For example, I can find ways to decline talking to someone on the phone. Mom also said that I can let someone know if they are making me uncomfortable when they are being over effusive. 

Later on, I ended online communication with Peter by texting something like “I might delete Snapchat since I don’t use it very much but I’ll see you at group.” This experience taught me about setting boundaries, that you don’t have to give your social media information to anyone and that you don’t have to be friends with everyone. Even though this experience was hard, I’m glad I stuck up for my time and didn’t fake a friendship. 

I think that setting boundaries is very important, especially for autistic people. I think it’s important to stress that while people need to make social sacrifices, it is important to set boundaries so that you can maintain a level of comfort. Making small talk with people can be awkward (and pointless to some people), but it is also what’s expected. As you can see, it is essential to set and respect boundaries. In a society where people’s boundaries often aren’t respected, it can cause people to lose hope and give up on advocating for their needs. I hope that by reading this blog post, people can be more understanding about the issues many autistic people face and respect their boundaries. If you are a parent, make sure to teach your kids to advocate for themselves and support them when they set a reasonable boundary, such as not wanting to hug someone. Also, the next time you experience some discomfort, ask yourself: is it a puddle or a wild animal?

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