It can be difficult to navigate autism and boundaries; many autistic people are very literal and do not naturally have a filter or awareness of the social etiquette rules that neurotypical individuals typically pick up as they grow from childhood to adulthood. For those with autism, it may take a more concerted effort and the support of a parent or caregiver for them to understand or engage with these social rules.
Of course, every individual is different, and everyone’s experience of autism and boundaries is different. Teaching social boundaries to autistic individuals from a young age is a great way to ensure they grow up with realistic expectations and behaviors.
Many social ‘rules’ are unspoken or unwritten. For example, if you run into someone you don’t know very well and they ask how you are, they might just be checking in – they aren’t always looking for you to start telling them about how your truck broke down, you missed the bus, and your cat is sick. They’re likely expecting you to simply say, ‘I’m okay, thanks, how are you?’.
Scripts can be a great way to help clarify social boundaries for autistic people. Autism Spectrum, an Australian autism service provider, offers resources with clear explanations of social conventions, guidance on navigating social situations and even conversation starters, each broken down into different scenarios. These scripts create ‘rules’ for social scenarios and can take some of the stress out of unpredictable scenarios.
Not knowing how to act or react appropriately in a given situation can lead to miscommunication or bluntness. Having a script of what to say or do gives the individual clear guidance so they don’t have to guess or become overwhelmed.
Communication can be more difficult with an autistic person who is low- or non-verbal, or has selective mutism. Using communication tools can help bridge this gap – our range of IRiS wireless products allow users to operate ‘talkers’ (controllers) to have different effects on various ‘listeners’. You could place some IRiS LED strips around a room and give a talker such as a color selector to the individual.
Green might mean they’re happy to have people around them and interacting with them. Orange might mean they don’t mind people being in the room, but would rather have some space, and red might mean they would like to be alone in the room. This gives the individual the power to communicate and enforce their own boundaries without any stress.
Another important thing for social boundaries and autism is recognizing when a situation is becoming stressful or overwhelming and being able to step away. Calming sensory rooms are ideal for this as they are designed to de-escalate and promote a calm mind.
When overwhelmed, an autistic person may react with a meltdown or a shutdown (often characterized by being non-verbal and unresponsive). This is distressing for the individual and, if they are not given the space to self-regulate, may provoke a further defensive response. As social rules may be a conscious effort rather than an innate action, this can be where a boundary may be broken.
Having a sentence or a few phrases to communicate overwhelming feelings to others can be invaluable, as they not only allow the individual to claim some space but in doing so they might be able to protect themselves from sensory overload.
• I’m feeling overwhelmed right now. I’m going to go and calm down, and I’ll come back when I’m ready.
• I’m going to take a moment to myself in the other room.
It’s important that those who struggle with social boundaries and autism are taught about the correct contexts for different situations (ideally when they are children) to avoid difficult situations.
It’s important to discuss situations in which different rules may apply when teaching an autistic person about boundaries. For example, a stranger might touch your hand (handshake), and a friend might touch your back (a hug), but only certain trusted people should touch below the belt, such as a doctor or a caregiver when bathing.
Similarly, it’s okay to be naked in the bath or when changing, but you need to keep clothes on when you’re walking down the street or playing in the park.
Autistic children and young people should be able to use the correct, clinical names for body parts to ensure that boundaries are kept and to communicate if someone is breaking those boundaries.
If you have an autistic child or young person in your life, the onus is placed on the adult to advocate for their comfort and safety. Make it clear that they are able to say no to anything that makes them uncomfortable and have that respected, just as they must respect other people’s social boundaries.
For example, a common trait among autistic people is a dislike of physical touch, as it can be an unpleasant sensation. If you have family visiting for Thanksgiving, and your child’s grandparent wants to give them a hug when the child doesn’t wish to be hugged, teach them a polite refusal. For example, “No, thank you – can we high five or wave at each other instead?” Afterwards, if the grandparent continues to try and initiate a hug, you should step between them and reinforce the child’s boundaries.
This creates better trust with you as the parent or caregiver and reminds the other party that the child or young person has autonomy as well.
There are three key things to keep in mind when teaching boundaries with autistic individuals.
Making clear rules and sticking to them as much as possible when teaching boundaries to someone with autism creates a consistent environment and helps to encourage the person to understand the rules. If you find any exceptions or anomalous situations, acknowledge them and explain why those exceptions exist.
Autistic people need just as much autonomy as neurotypical people and their boundaries and needs might be different than those of a neurotypical person, so you must work with that person to establish what they would like their boundaries to be and how they would like them to be enforced.
When it comes to autistic people, particularly children and young people, they are often spoken over or presumed to be fussy, attention-seeking or spoiled when they ask for their boundaries to be met. If you are the parent or caregiver of an autistic child or young person, you may find yourself in a position where someone attempts to override the child’s wishes, like in the Thanksgiving scenario mentioned. If that occurs, it is important to stand up for the child and advocate for them.
An autistic adult may also appreciate someone advocating for them in certain situations, but you should always ask their preferences before stepping in.
It’s important to remember that autism affects every individual in different ways, and so there are no set rules on how to deal with autism and boundaries. If you would like to learn more, please get in touch with our team today or find more autism resources on our blog. We can help you find the tools to improve communication skills and reinforce boundaries.