Tag Archives: boundary

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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Boundaries (again)

creative commons image by amiruddin on flickr

I want to talk about boundaries again. Boundaries are important. Finding ways to express boundaries is important. Responding properly when someone has expressed a boundary – VERY important.

So here is a thing about me – I have trouble explicitly stating my boundaries. I think there are a couple reasons why.

I was raised as a female. In my experience, people who were raised with the expectation that they would become women are raised (at least in the US) to not be clear about their boundaries. Women (or people perceived as women) are typically punished for defending their own boundaries, which leads women (or people perceived or raised as women) to finding other ways to state their needs or desires or boundaries. It leads to being indirect, to phrasing requests as offers, to saying “hey, why don’t you do x?” when they mean “you are doing y and it’s causing me discomfort or worse, please do something else” and expecting the listener to understand that a thing phrased as an offer or a suggestion was actually a request. As I’ve written about before I have an intensely huge problem with this sort of behavior. I find it rude, though for some reason many people seem to believe that it qualifies as “nice” or “polite.” Anyway, regardless of how I view that sort of behavior, I was raised as a woman. I was taught that it’s wrong for me to explicitly state my boundaries.

On top of that, I was on the autism spectrum but undiagnosed. No one knew. There were things that caused me pain that people could not understand how it did, so they did not believe me. I was expected to do the things everyone else did, regardless of the impact it had on me. Sensory overload and can’t cope? Doesn’t matter, I still need to go along with everyone else, smile as though I’m having fun, act the way I’m expected to act. Failure to do so would result in scolding, judgement, and/or punishment, and this continued well into my adult life. Actually, it still continues, though far less so and mostly from people who are convinced that if I just try harder, I could be like them. Happily, I am now at a point in my life where I can mostly ignore those people.

The end result of these two things is that I really have a hard time simply stating my boundaries. However, it’s something I’m working really hard on as I want to be able to do so, and I think it’s wrong to expect people perceived as women to always be passive and indirect about their own needs. Also, I really want people to be direct with me about their boundaries. I HATE having to constantly reinterpret what people say and figure out what they really mean because they’re being indirect. I have actually been actively working on ways to deal with that that don’t leave me angry or resentful for indefinite periods of time (potential script I have yet to use but think might work: “That was phrased as an offer/suggestion. Was it actually an offer/suggestion, or was it really a request?”) Anyway, because I want people to be courteous enough to be direct with me, I’m trying to learn to be direct as well.

So. Let’s say I actually manage to direct state a boundary. Or really, let’s say anyone directly states a boundary. Or even indirectly (arg) states a boundary but you’re lucky enough to know what they mean. What do you do next?

Happily, the thing to do next is the same in ALL instances! It’s a lovely area that does not force me to have a lot of different answers based on small differences in context. The thing to do next is respect the boundary.

So simple! Someone says “here is my boundary.” Then you say “ok! I respect that boundary!” And then, you know, you don’t cross that line, whatever it happens to be. Now, maybe you don’t understand why that’s a boundary. Maybe it seems weird and pointless to you. The right answer is still to respect the boundary. DO NOT demand that the boundary be explained to you first. DO NOT choose to reject the boundary just because you don’t get it. DO NOT say that the boundary is wrong or should be changed.

Sometimes there will be a tricky situation is two people’s boundaries/needs/whatever conflict with each other. I don’t have a pat answer for that situation. All I can say is to negotiate. Respect each other’s needs, believe each other when they express their needs and/or boundaries, and try to work out the best way to accommodate both of you.

It should not be hard to just accept and respect the boundaries people state, but so often it seems that people don’t do that. It’s hard enough for me to just directly say “here is my boundary.” Coming back with “no, your boundary should be something else” is rude, entitled, and personally painful. Don’t do that crap, seriously.

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