Why autistic people struggle with comfort zones, and what can be done about it
I’ll admit it: this is one article I procrastinated the hell out of. Because it’s painful on a personal level.
Nonetheless, I get plenty of messages about this topic through Autistic Not Weird’s Facebook community [all links open in new windows], so I’ve wanted to write it for a while. And since my Patreon backers voted for it to be the subject of my next article, it’s time to take the plunge!
I have always known how to be caring. I have always known how to be kind. And I have always been sociable, even if only in my own way. (Despite the stereotype, autistic people are often very sociable. You just have to meet us where we’re at.)
But I have not always known how to be ‘socially appropriate’. And to some people, that’s more important than being caring or kind.
In fact, in much the same way that society has expectations of academic intelligence (e.g. every adult should be able to read fluently and perform basic mathematics), society also has expectations of social intelligence. And Heaven help you if you fall short of them.
As a child, as a teenager and as an adult, my social intelligence has not been great. I’ve lost plenty of friends because I’ve stepped inside their comfort zones without realising. Before I knew I was autistic, I just thought it was me being incompetent, and that I was totally alone in being so inept.
Except, I’m not alone. And if you’re autistic and the above sounds familiar to you, you’re not alone either. Struggles with comfort zones are extremely common for people across the autism spectrum.
The title of this article asks two questions. So, off we go with the first:
Why do autistic people struggle with comfort zones?
Well, I can think of five reasons.
1. Comfort zones are inconsistent.
Some readers may remember my article about why autistic people struggle with appropriateness. One of the points I made was that the definitions of appropriate/inappropriate are so vague and subjective that they’re often impossible to pin down. Something that seems appropriate to one person may feel totally inappropriate to another. And it’s very similar with comfort zones.
Let me give an example. In my early adult years, I was fairly close to a family from church. They were very friendly, and very accepting of who I was.
After church one day, I gave a hug to one of their kids. I was led to believe it was a fairly normal thing to do, especially when you’re close enough to have babysat them in the past.
So I was quite alarmed when one of their parents responded with “actually Chris, could you do me a favour and not hug the children?”
I was aware at the time that comfort zones were difficult to translate (although it would be another four years before anyone told me I was autistic). But I was yet to learn that they were so inconsistent: I just took it for granted that people had the same set of rules for what was acceptable and what was not. Therefore, I must have been incredibly stupid not to know these rules like everyone else did.
But a few weeks later I was invited to a different family’s house for their son’s sixth birthday party. By this time I was pretty much phobic of hugs (bloody hell, that’s a sad thing to write), because I’d been led to believe they were inappropriate or something like that. Then, at the end of the evening, the birthday boy’s mother asked “Joe, are you going to give Chris a nice big hug for coming to your birthday party?”
I appreciated the hug, as confusing as it was. And it was equally confusing when his mother hugged me too, as I didn’t think many adults did that.
The moral of the story? There are no hard and fast rules for comfort zones. But somehow, you’re expected to know them anyway.
2. We don’t get hints, but people insist on them.
I wrote a whole guide on how to translate people’s hints. Because if you don’t speak ‘hidden English’ (my pet name for not saying what you mean and considering it normal), it can get you into trouble. Add comfort zones into the mix, and it can be especially risky.
People in general (my fellow Brits especially) are often afraid to say what they mean in case they offend you. For example, it’s much more diplomatic to say “it smells a bit in here” than to say “wow, your armpits stink.”
The trouble is, most people will hear that first sentence, connect the imaginary dots, interpret it as a comment about somebody smelling bad, leave the room and apply some deodorant.
And because most people would get the hint, it’s expected that all people should get the hint. Then, when enough people communicate that way, it becomes ‘your fault’ if you do what most autistic people would see as completely normal: hear the sentence, take it as an observation about how the room smells, and then move on with the conversation (still stinking, of course. And unaware of it because nobody’s told you.)
When you’re talking to autistic people, it’s not “polite” to drop hints. All it does is make us look like we’re ignoring you. If you really want to be polite to us, find a caring way of being specific.
(Oh, and if you break up with an autistic person and say “we can still be friends”, we won’t see that as a throwaway line. We will expect that friendship! And we’ll often get blamed for breaking comfort zone boundaries with our exes further down the line because we took you at your word.)
3. We express ourselves differently.
I’m willing to bet that some non-autistic children are even more passionate about Pokémon, Sonic and dinosaurs than their autistic classmates. But their passions won’t be seen as ‘obsessions’ like autistic people have. The main reason for this is that an autistic child will express that passion differently – and often more directly.
A non-autistic child may show their love for dinosaurs by buying a load of toys, having posters on their walls, and playing pretending games with their friends. (I did the same. When I played dinosaurs, I was always the parasaurolophus.)
An autistic child with the exact same love of dinosaurs may do all of the above, with the added habit of talking about dinosaurs all day and all night.
You know what else I’m willing to bet? I bet non-autistic children would talk about dinosaurs all day and all night too, if they believed they could get away with it.
The way we express ourselves is entirely normal to us, so it’s easy to forget that it’s not normal to you as well.
(And if you think this is because autistic people struggle with reading others… read that sentence again, but pretend I’m a non-autistic man talking to autistic people. See how it works both ways?)
It’s particularly easy to forget if you’re caught up in how awesome dinosaurs are. Because that’s fairly distracting by itself.
4. Body language isn’t a natural priority for us.
This is kind of an extension of the point about hints. By and large, body language is difficult for people on the autism spectrum. But again, you’re expected to just know what it means when someone has their hands on their hips, or taps their foot. (And I’d like to thank Sonic the Hedgehog for being the only reason I knew what these meant as a child.)
But the body language issue isn’t just a matter of reading other people: it also affects how we conduct ourselves. I’ve been told several times that my body language looks “unnatural” (but unnatural to who?). And depending on the person, I may have no problem with being a couple of inches away from their face. They may have a problem with it, but I’ve learned over the years that they won’t bother telling me.
To use an analogy – if you’re non-autistic, imagine that social appropriateness depends on how high-pitched your voice is. The higher your pitch, the nicer people think you are. And if you speak in a normal pitch, people will think you’re rude (but they won’t tell you). Oh, and you also struggle to read the pitch of other people’s voices.
Wouldn’t that be difficult? Sure, you could speak in a high pitch all the time in order to look polite, but how hard would it be to constantly remember it when it’s not natural to you?
5. We may misestimate how close you want us to be.
Remember the rather painful diary article? In the very first point, I mentioned Amy. She is a classic example of what can happen if you can’t read comfort zones.
Throughout our teenage years, Amy went through several hard times. Because I cared about her, I’d committed myself to helping her. But because I didn’t know any better, my way of helping her was to continuously ask how she was, every time I saw her or every time she came online.
Teenage girls are fairly complex to begin with, so this friend of mine was far beyond my social understanding. So with me being so persistent and unmoving, it wasn’t long until Amy started to dislike me. And then hated me.
Looking back, I was trying to be someone she didn’t want (or expect) me to be. She was comfortable with me just being a friend rather than some kind of intensive therapist.
But friendships don’t come with levels or grades. There is no spoken definition of how close you’re ‘allowed’ to be to another person, or what kind of closeness you’ve attained with them. You basically have to make an educated guess, which is harder to make if the other person’s not very specific with you.
Until Amy and I finally fell out. Then she was very specific.
So what can be done about it?
Well, here are a few insights. Some of them require effort on the part of the autistic person, some require effort on the part of the person they’re talking to. Like most things, it’s a matter of both parties meeting each other halfway.
Advice to non-autistic people:
1. Be specific!!
Yep, I thought I’d start with the obvious one. If you know that the other person struggles with hints or non-literal language, be specific. With a little diplomacy, it’s entirely possible to say what you mean without being rude.
Instead of being afraid of hurting an autistic person’s feelings by telling them the truth, consider how much more hurtful it would be if you knowingly allow them to continue making social mistakes. It’s all the more painful when we find out.
2. Be tolerant.
As a child I may have been kind, caring and funny (intentionally or not) – but wow, I was irritating. I probably was as a teenager as well. I’m not aware of being irritating as an adult, but like I said- I’m sure nobody would tell me anyway!
Because we express ourselves differently, you may find an autistic friend difficult to read, interpret, or respond to. (If it’s any consolation, this is the default experience for most autistic people when dealing with everyone else.)
I don’t want to make it sound like we’re naturally irritating, because it simply isn’t true in my experience. I find autistic people so much easier to socialise with than everyone else, but maybe I’m a little biased. But seriously, tolerate us. Tolerate our quirks, our interests, our overenthusiastic methods of communication, and so on.
Actually, screw that. Don’t just tolerate those things. Enjoy those things. Find the same joy in them as we do.
3. Remember how much you mean to us.
In most cases, people who disregard your comfort zones are showing you disrespect. But that doesn’t apply if the other person genuinely struggles to see where the boundaries are. An autistic person may care about you deeply – in fact, this may be one reason why they’ve ventured inside your comfort zone to begin with.
Yes, be specific with autistic people. But when you tell them, make sure they have no illusions about how much you still value them. Be specific about that too.
Advice to autistic people:
1. Detecting comfort zones is an art.
It’s tricky to give advice on figuring out people’s comfort zones, because a lot of it comes with life experience, learned through trial and error. (Besides, I’m not exactly perfect myself.) But in general:
- Remember that different people have different boundaries.
- Let the other person know you find things easier when they’re direct.
- If you’re unsure about whether someone’s uncomfortable, ask them. It’s sometimes tricky, but the other person may value the fact that you cared enough to ask.
- It’s better to learn from any mistakes rather than beat yourself up about them.
2. Not every social mistake is your fault.
I made this point in the article I wrote specifically for teenagers (point 6), and it’s an important one. I mentioned earlier how I felt responsible for every social misunderstanding that happened to me, because I felt it was my duty to just know these things.
But other people are allowed to make mistakes too. Other people are quite capable of being completely irrational and making a big fuss over nothing.
This is not to say we shouldn’t take responsibility for anything, of course. I’m simply advising you not to automatically take the blame for every misunderstanding, even if the world has made you feel like you’re the odd one out (and therefore probably wrong).
3. If you screw up, here’s what to do.
I should probably use the word ‘when’ rather than ‘if’, because everybody screws up with comfort zones once in a while, autistic or not. You wouldn’t think it, but I promise they do.
First off, don’t rush into anything. You may want the problem to be solved right there, right then, but people need their own space when they feel uncomfortable. Let them steady themselves first. (Last time I almost lost a friend due to a monumental screw-up on my part, I waited three days before sending her a message. Waiting helped me too, as I was able to write that message in a calmer mood.)
Secondly, don’t be afraid to apologise. Try not to go overboard with pleading or anything, but make it clear that you recognise how you made them feel.
Thirdly, give an explanation if one is needed. Phrase it carefully though, as you don’t want a genuine explanation to be wrongly interpreted as making excuses.
Finally, let them know you’ll take lessons from the experience.
And finally, my traditional bullet-point summary:
- Everyone’s comfort zones are different. That’s why they’re so difficult.
- Don’t use hints with an autistic person if you want the right response.
- Autistic people express themselves differently to others. This is no bad thing, but our expression can sometimes be interpreted wrongly.
- Communicating with body language is the equivalent of dropping hints.
- Friendships levels aren’t always clear, so it’s possible to misestimate your place.
- Non-autistic people: be specific, be tolerant, remember how much we value you.
- Autistic people: make sure you and your friend understand each other, don’t consistently blame yourself, remember how to act if things go wrong.
I hope this article helps you, whether you’re autistic or not.
All the best,
Chris Bonnello / Captain Quirk
Chris Bonnello is an autism speaker, available to lead talks and training sessions from the perspective of an autistic former teacher. For further information please click here (opens in new window).
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