In my day job, I talk to a lot of Autistic people. I mean a lot of Autistic people. One of the most common questions I am asked is how to better account for limited reserves of energy and cognitive resources. The answer sounds deceptively simple, but in reality, it can be a really complicated practice. I’m talking about the creation and maintenance of boundaries in Autistic people’s lives.
Why are boundaries so complicated for Autistic people?
As Autistic people, we have grown up in a world that doesn’t care for our boundaries. We are taught from a young age that our needs and wants do not matter and that we should live our lives for the comfort of others. This attitude is most pervasive when we look at the high rates of trauma in our community. We also can not forget the effect of being late-identified and the role of intergenerational trauma.
For many Autistic people, our earliest memories are of people denying our sensory needs, invalidating our communication styles, ignoring the very things that would help us participate more equally in a world not designed for us. This means that by the time we reach adulthood, we are much less likely to be willing to maintain our own boundaries.
What does ignorance of boundaries teach Autistic people?
Autistic people are often accused of overstepping boundaries, especially in childhood. I would point out to the casual observer that we expect Autistic children to give more to society than society is willing to reciprocate. We teach Autistic children that boundaries do not matter and then penalise them for lacking awareness of social niceties.
There is then the wider issue of Autistic wellbeing. Adults with poorly maintained boundaries will inevitably experience lower levels of wellbeing than people who are able to sagely self-advocate. Autistic people often spiral in and out of burnout, unable to sagely set boundaries that are vital to their energy accounting.
How does ignorance of boundaries effect Autistic identity?
One aspect of the importance of boundaries that is rarely talked about, but very important, is that of its effect on our sense of identity. In my own life a lack of clearly defined boundaries kept my queerness closeted for decades. Because I was not able to advocate for.myself to others, I could not do the internal advocacy work I needed in order to identify my queer identity.
No one talks about it, but when you have grown up being constantly invalidated, you absolutely have to advocate to yourself. We have to battle and dismantle the internalised ableism and normativity that has kept us trapped within societies definition of “us” rather than exploring what the means to ourselves.
How can Autistic people begin to maintain boundaries?
Autistic people can begin to identify and maintain boundaries through self-exploration. For some, this may be an isolated affair, while others may engage with peer mentorship. This is where a sense of AuSociality becomes important. By socialising Autistically with Autistic people, we can begin to learn what our Autistic profile is and, therefore, what our unique set of strengths and struggles are.
When we know who we are and what we need, we are in a stronger position to begin self-advocacy to the wider world, and subsequently, we can begin to improve our sense of wellbeing.