April 9, 2020

Safe Distance on the Neurohighway: Personal Space in Relationships

Personal space is typically defined in terms of physical space. Specifically, the area immediately surrounding a person. The size and permeability of this buffer varies per person - per nonautistic person. Personal space is typically defined by the needs and responses of nonautistics. 

Autistics tend to need more personal space than nonautistics. They need more space on the couch, making cuddling to watch a movie less romantic and more distressing. They dislike being touched, especially unexpectedly. Affective embraces, like hugs and other supportive gestures, may be processed as affronts, rather than comforting, when uninitiated by the autistic. In fact, when upset, they may prefer to be left alone rather than comforted, especially physically. Overwhelming in the best of times, physical touch when the autistic individual is upset can be the physical equivalent of nails on a chalkboard, leading to meltdown, rather than comfort.

As a result, autistics obsessively curate their personal space, carefully selecting the lights, sounds, fabrics, and odors in their environment as well as the people with whom they share this space. In doing so, they redefine and expand the meaning of personal space beyond physical parameters to include social, emotional, and mental needs. 

Social Space Needs

The “social battery” of autistics possesses smaller capacity, depletes more rapidly, and recharges more slowly than that of nonautistics. Any and all mundane life events (i.e., work, birthday party, dinner and movie, parent-teacher conferences) require effort. Preparing for and enduring social interaction generates anxiety, involves sensory overstimulation, and stresses the social-cognitive abilities of autistics. 

Recharging the social battery is best achieved in solitude and silence. The autistic gravitates toward soothing activities, such as reading a book, writing music, organizing a collection, knitting, or playing a video game. Recharge time might range from thirty minutes to several days, depending on how drastically the energy depleted and how long the autistic person was actively running in low-power mode. 

Not to be overlooked, the chronic anxiety created by functioning in a neurotypical world further drives the social space needs of autistics. Constantly questioning the meaning and second guessing the nuances behind all social interactions is the status quo for autistics. This level of anxiety is not just constant; it is debilitating. 

Easily Misinterpreted Social Space Needs

  • May have a greater need for control over environment (sound, light, touch, scent)
  • May need own space in home to be alone and need more time alone
  • May dislike physical displays of affection, including cuddling, holding hands, spooning, or snuggling to the point of recoiling, stiffening, or pushing away
  • May avoid conversations in groups (the whole family is gathered) or initiating conversations in which there is a lot of activity (television on, side conversations, cooking dinner, windows open)

Emotional Space Needs

Nonautistics often categorize the emotional responses of autistics into contradictory opposites. On the one hand, autistic emotional reactions lack the intensity and the display nonautistics expect. (It’s unthinkable someone could be without an opinion about the surprise reveal on last night’s reality tv show - he cheated on her with her mother!) On the other hand, the feelings of autistics are also unpredictably too much — explosive, exaggerated, dramatic. (You were just a few minutes late to dinner, after all.) These extremes caricature autistics as robotic or unhinged without exploring the emotional experiences of autistics. 

Autistics experience difficulties labeling and expressing their own emotions, clinically referred to as alexithymia. They need more space to sort through emotions about their work day, their trip to the grocery store, the latest movie, their conversation with their best friend. Autistics may mask (READ: nod and say “yes”) through challenging situations, leaving a tangled mess to unravel at a later, calmer time. That moment may be delayed, creating a backlog of emotions that further intertwine. 

Some autistics are emotional sponges, reflexively absorbing the feelings of others. Emotional osmosis leads to responses (both immediate and delayed) unknowingly triggered by others. Incomplete awareness about these feelings means autistics are further confused and exhausted by the emotional demands of the social world. Retreat into routine and personal recreation may be the only remedy.

Difficulties with both too much and too little empathy also add to the emotional space needs of autistics. While autistics may struggle with cognitive empathy (the ability to predict another’s thoughts and intentions as well as the ability to “read between the lines” during communication), many have an overabundance of affective empathy (the ability to feel what another person is feeling) as well as compassionate empathy (the desire to help others). This overabundance of affective and compassionate empathy can be entirely overwhelming, especially when the individual does not fully understand the source of the emotions, nor how best to help someone for whom they are feeling such deep empathy.

Easily Misinterpreted Emotional Space Needs

  • May prefer to be alone when upset
  • May be highly sensitive to the emotional state of those around them, even unconsciously taking on those emotions themselves
  • Less likely to seek out or initiate physical touch; may recoil from affective gestures intended for comfort or affection
  • May seem to abruptly or unexpectedly leave during an important part of a conversation, movie, or tv show due to strong, confusing, or overwhelming emotions

Mental Space Needs

Anxiety frays at one’s mental capacity. Planning what to say, how to act, and how to respond can be all-consuming but pointless, especially if the situation never arises. Reviewing what was said, how one responded, and what should have been  said is an endless post mortem that leaves autistics feeling defeated and resentful. 

Autistics need more mental space to think. From the perspective of an autistic, a conversation may feel sped up, whereas a nonautistic may experience the same conversation as slow, methodical, or boring. This discrepancy explains why autistics spend so much time in preparation, trying to offset their predisposition. Unfortunately, they find themselves trying to “keep up” with different resources that may not close the gap. 

Imagine you’ve been dropped in a foreign country with no knowledge of the language, no translator, and no guidebook. That’s roughly how it feels to be an autistic functioning in the nonautistic world. Even with a lifetime of experience, you know you will never quite master the language or the culture, and no matter how hard you try, you’ll never fully blend in as a local. The native tongue will always be your second language, and you will always be doing the extra work of translating every conversation simultaneously while it is happening. Add to this the constant monitoring of facial expression and body language, and you can begin to understand why autistics need both more time to prepare for, and recover from all kinds of social interaction.

Easily Misinterpreted Mental Space Needs

  • May prefer to pursue hobbies/interests independently rather than with others
  • May prefer to think through things on their own, rather than chatting or “processing” with others
  • May need extra time to decompress (even after mundane daily activities)
  • May need extra time to make decisions, even decisions like the location of dinner or the preferred show to watch
  • May seem checked out and unavailable though physically present

With these needs in mind, let’s examine a common miscommunication in an  nonautistic and autistic partnership. 

The autistic arrives home from work tired; it’s been a long day. She drops her stuff at the door and heads for the bedroom to change into comfy clothes. The nonautistic comes thundering up the stairs, immediately starts talking, and reaches out to give the autistic a hug and kiss. “Hi honey! How was your day? You won’t believe what happened at work today! What do you want to do for dinner? Did you see that thing I text you earlier?” The autistic cringes, “It’s been a long day, I just want to change into my sweats and stay here. I have a project I want to work on, maybe play my game for a bit and go to bed early. Give me a while alone to chill out ok? Then we can talk about dinner.”

The nonautistic was looking forward to spending some time together, going out for dinner, then maybe watching the latest episode of that popular TV show. Now feelings are hurt because it seems like the autistic doesn’t care about what happened to them today, and certainly doesn’t want to spend time with them. Do they still care about them? Do they still want to be with them? The nonautistic may start catastrophizing, thinking that there is someone else and the autistic wants to end the relationship. *screeching brakes sound* Wait a minute, this is a major miscommunication!

For Right Now: How To Fix This CURRENT Situation

To the nonautistic:

Give the gift of space without the expectation of a gift in return. Instead, give yourself something - read a book, watch a show you love. Understand the need for space for what it is, not what it could be. You cannot help what you wanted to happen and how you feel now. Your partner cannot help the difficulties of their day and their most effective coping strategies. You can, however, remember your autistic partner is not trying to do anything to you

Recalibrate joint expectations. The events you have planned for together need to be tabled for the moment and possibly for another time. Autistics are often criticized for rigidly adhering to unspoken routines and expectations; don’t be a hypocrite. Pause. Regroup. Relax. 

Process and prioritize. Process your own emotions of disappointment, annoyance, and loneliness in preparation for talking about them, rather than acting them out. Decide if you want to communicate these feelings and plan to do so at a later time. 

To the autistic: 

Ground yourself within a timeframe. As impossible as predicting the length of time needed to rest and recover may be, reach into your bag of time-sensitive strategies to calm yourself and choose one that you feel will be helpful at this time. Take the time needed to regroup, reassess the situation, and then, when ready, reconvene with your partner.

Provide a status-update text to your partner with three critical components: 1. How you are doing, 2. A rough time estimate, 3. A sentiment of love or appreciation. Your partner is concerned about you. Your partner also wants to know if they will see you at all and what to plan for their own time. They also need to know you are thinking about them, which can be accomplished by expressing your love for them. 

  • “Hey, I’m doing a bit better. Need more time. Thanks for your patience. I love you.”
  • “I’m still really exhausted. I think I’ll go sit on the couch and read. Love you.”
  • “I’ll be ready to chat in ten minutes. You’re the best!”

Clearly communicate the level of connection you are capable of achieving. Chat? Sure. Dinner together? Eh...maybe. Watch a show silently? Yes. Talk about the day? No. 

For the Future: How To Avoid This TYPE of Situation

To the nonautistic:

  • Recognize and Respect the Contradictions. Just as the nonautistic thrives on physical and social intimacy to regulate themselves emotionally, the autistic thrives on physical and social space to regulate themselves emotionally. Neither default is ideal for the other, but the contradiction does not have to forecast incompatibility. 
  • Proactive efforts are required on both sides. The autistic must communicate their space needs; the nonautistic must communicate their intimacy needs. Plans need to be made and modified as needed to meet both sets of needs. 
  • Less is More. After extended effort of any kind, the last thing an autistic wants is more social interaction, even with someone they love. Adding physical touch on top of the exhaustion they are already experiencing is a recipe for sensory overload and may even lead to a meltdown.
  • WYSIWYG: What You See is What You Get. Literally. Remember that what you see (and hear) is exactly what they mean, regardless of the mental hoops your mind is jumping through. If your partner tells you they need silence during a meal, they mean COMPLETE silence. If they tell you they need 30 minutes to regroup, they need at least that and interrupting them is like picking up a hand grenade. 

To the autistic: 

  • Consider setting a routine for things that are stressful and will require physical, mental, social, and emotional space. Communicate the steps of this routine and the length of this routine to your partner. Include your preferences for how they can communicate with you if they feel they must. 
  • Have a set list of activities to regroup with that are time sensitive. Communicate this list to your partner, along with the time estimates. These activities should last no longer than 30 minutes. After you complete one, you need to check in (text is fine, as long as you have talked about that with your partner). 
  • This need to keep another person at arm’s length can be foreign to nonautistics. Unless educated by their autistic partner, nonautistics may interpret these space needs as a sign that the autistic is not interested, not attracted to, and not concerned about them. This interpretation is automatic to nonautistic wiring. Applying these interpretations across the neurodivide can result in miscommunication and hurt feelings.
  • Even with prior explanation or “warning” of the need for space, the nonautistic may feel neglected, left out, or ignored when the autistic retreats to solo hobbies and special interests, leaving the nonautistic alone to entertain themselves. This was not what they were expecting out of a relationship. 

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