Tag Archives: boundaries

Can Autistic People Respect Boundaries?

Creative commons image by Nick Youngson

Yes.

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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Finding the Boundaries

creative commons image by ank0ku on flickr

Explicit boundary markers are fabulous.

This is yet another hugemassive topic that goes far beyond anything I’m capable of fitting into a single blog post. So, yet again, I’m going to be going for a more general overview, with the idea that I can do more specific blog posts in the future.

In my post about politeness, I briefly listed a few areas of polite behavior, including finding and respecting people’s boundaries. As a matter of fact, most of what I listed could be considered a form of knowing/respecting boundaries, as this is a really huge deal. In some cases, it could be considered about being polite or otherwise, and in other cases it’s about a whole lot more. There are all sorts of types of boundaries.

When I first started thinking about this blog topic, I was thinking about a version of boundaries that fits rather neatly as a politeness thing – that is, knowing when to talk to people and when not to. Knowing how often to talk to or contact people. How much is too much, how much is not enough, that sort of thing. I am terrible at finding a balance on this one, and after many failures in relationships I’ve become somewhat obsessive and stressed about it all. Too little contact with a person and I find myself unable to continue to feel a connection with them. Too much contact with a person and they tend to run away. Trying to balance what I need and want with what the other person needs and wants is something I find terribly complicated and difficult, and I only occasionally bother to try. On this one, if anyone has any magical secrets on how to figure this out, I’d certainly love it hear them. ^_^

There are also other sorts of boundaries. Many of them are very serious sorts of boundaries, with serious consequences for getting them wrong. One of those areas is sexual boundaries. Interestingly, I don’t find sexual boundaries to be all that difficult to navigate. The big thing is that for it to work as easy as possible, there are two things each person needs to bring to the table.

1. a willingness to talk about where your boundaries are. It can be hard to directly talk about sexual things, especially since we have a lot of learned shame around it all, but it’s honestly fairly important to be able to do so. That said, it’s ok if it’s uncomfortable or challenging or embarrassing. It’s just important to do it.
2. Practice explicit consent. I am a huge proponent of explicit consent just in general for everyone (unless you have an established relationship and have worked out other ways to do it), but ESPECIALLY LOTS for anyone on the spectrum. Where it goes beyond “no means no” and into “yes means yes.” Do not assume that things are ok – ask first. It does not have to be terribly awkward and robotic, either. Enthusiastic consent is pretty hot. ^_^

Then there are more general boundaries. Some are fairly obvious (don’t punch people except in certain, very limited, contexts), and others are more about any given individual’s lines (like how I don’t want people to touch my upper arms). In the case of the latter, I strongly prefer (and very much appreciate) people who are willing to be explicit. I have a very hard time with non-verbal communication, and I miss boundaries all too often when they are expressed with gestures or facial expressions rather than with words. This is a difficult area for me – technically speaking, socially speaking, it’s up to me to detect where everyone’s boundaries are. Realistically speaking, while I do try very hard, sometimes I just can’t. I need words. So I tend to be more drawn to people who use words, or who are at least willing to use words with me. Which also means that when I person does use words to express a boundary, I make a point to respect it without making them work or fight for it.

Sometimes I find when I express boundaries to other people, their response is to immediately ask me why I need that boundary, or couldn’t I use this other boundary instead, etc. This both bothers me on a personal level and is a behavior that I find generally problematic, so I make a point to not do it (with the possible exception of if respecting that person’s boundary carries a risk of crossing a boundary of mine. then negotiation needs to happen). If, for whatever reason, I want more information I make a point to agree to the boundary first, and then express my desire for said information.

Overall, I find boundaries are things worth a lot of my energy and attention. I know I sometimes have trouble, but I really do care about getting it right, so I try. I try a lot. And I love it when people are explicit about their own boundaries. It’s fantastic.

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