Can Autistic People Respect Boundaries?

Creative commons image by Nick Youngson


Ok, that isn’t enough for a blog post. Before I get more into it, though – autistic people reading this will almost certainly already be entirely aware of everything I’m about to say. As such, this post is really targeted more towards allistic (non-autistic) people who might have autistic people in their lives in some way.

Also, I feel like I need a disclaimer here – there will, of course, be some autistic people who just don’t respect boundaries at all, in that there are some PEOPLE who don’t respect boundaries at all. There are many kinds of people out there, and not all of them are kind or respectful. Anyway, moving on.

To put it simply – the problem isn’t that autistic people don’t care about boundaries, the problem is that autistic people often don’t understand boundaries in the way that allistic people do, nor do we necessarily understand what people are trying to communicate to us when people try to communicate boundaries.

For some reason, many allistic people seem to think it’s rude to simply state a boundary in blunt terms. I once read a thread of people talking about how to get guests to leave when they have overstayed their welcome, and not one person had “I just tell them it’s time for them to go” as a suggestion. Instead it was all hints, clues, tones of voice, body cues, and one person even said she’ll get out the broom to start sweeping, sweep around her guests feet so they move, and using this technique literally “sweep” them out the door! I was so astonished by that whole thread! Why can’t you just tell your friends that it’s time for them to go?

In any case, as an autistic person, that is the kind of thing I’m talking about. I really need things stated to me VERY CLEARLY AND DIRECTLY, and that is definitely a struggle for allistic people. I can’t count how many times I have inadvertently overstepped a boundary simply because I didn’t know it was there. I’ve had people try to communicate boundaries to me with small hand-waves, with the way they walked, with the stance they took while standing, with verbal subtext, with eye glances, and really I don’t even know what else. At some point I started directly telling people that I need communication to be very blunt, that I need them to TELL me their boundaries so I can understand. People consistently assure me that they totally get it, they’ll definitely be direct with me, it’s cool.

Next thing I know, they’re incredibly angry with me because I was supposed to understand that a little hand-wave meant “stop hugging me” and really, that was TOTALLY clear on their part, I must have ignored it on purpose. 

Then I am in the awkward position of being both truly apologetic – I really am sorry! I didn’t mean to overstep a boundary! – and deeply frustrated. What happened to just telling me? I TOLD you that I can’t see those subtle forms of communication, and you assured me that you understood and it was ok! IT CLEARLY WAS NOT OK. 

I will absolutely respect your boundaries. I WANT to respect your boundaries, very much. But I have some difficulties in allistic-style communication, and this means I need you to just TELL me. Clearly, plainly, bluntly, even rudely by allistic standards. Because otherwise things tend to go from “so subtle I missed it entirely” to “explosion of anger” and I end up so confused.

Now I do want to put in a very important exception – the dating world. Bluntly rejecting or setting boundaries with men can be very dangerous to women. Sadly, we haven’t yet reached the point where men as a whole understand that women do not owe them their time, attention, or bodies, and women (or people perceived as women) need to be very careful. This means that there are situations where a woman might be trying to extract herself without just saying “I’m not interested” because being blunt like that carries the very real risk that the man will respond with violence. So what should autistic men who want to date women do? Simple – embrace enthusiastic consent. Treat anything less than a “hell yeah!” as a no. Prioritize everyone’s safety over your own desire to date or have sex.

So, in conclusion – yes, autistic people can totally do boundaries. In general, we need them communicated to us clearly, because that subtle, clue-based communication that allistic people like so much is often very confusing for us. Autistic people work VERY hard to accommodate the needs of allistics. I don’t think it’s a lot to ask for communication we can easily recognize, that will help us to accommodate you even more.


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3 responses to “Can Autistic People Respect Boundaries?

  1. “I was so astonished by that whole thread! Why can’t you just tell your friends that it’s time for them to go?”

    People don’t say this? Really? I’ve told people that the night is done – mostly grove activities.

    I think I’ll file this under “not giving a fuck.” I’ll tell you when you’ve stayed too long. Thinking back to the last couple of times we’ve had folks here, I usually say one of two things. First, I’m going to bed soon. Since some folks are visiting more than just me, that gives others in the house a chance to say they’re going to do the same, or ask the person(s) to stay (If two of the three of us are going to bed, then the visitors and leftover host move the party to the porch or backyard depending on the weather). Or, two, I’ll say something along the lines of “we’ll need to wrap this up in the next 30 minutes.” I know the phrasing is straight out of work meetings. But it works. There is no need to rush, you have time to say goodbye, but you do need to start saying goodbye and moving out the door.

    I super appreciated when you told us our visit was done. I wasn’t sure if we were to stay or if the day was done? Or were others leaving so we could visit without others? I didn’t know what to do or think. And then you said, the party is done. Oh, ok! 🙂 Now I know what to do. HUGS!!

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  3. Emma Sisco

    This also works in the opposite direction as well! I once “told a guest to leave” accidentally! We were on the porch and it was getting cold, so I invited him back inside. He sat down on the couch. I didn’t immediately sit down with him and instead I was stretching my legs and kind of rocking back and forth. We exchanged glances, and then he suddenly got up and said that he had to leave. I realized days later that the “standing and waiting” gesture is a signal for people to leave. It’s frustrating when people read into subtext that is not there.