Collab Post – Autism and setting boundaries

This is a blog post written by me and my friend Mollie. Mollie is on the autistic spectrum, and writes about her experiences of being on the autistic spectrum. Her blogs can be found here.

Setting boundaries is something that is really important for your wellbeing. In this blog post, Mollie and I will talk further about the importance of setting boundaries, and give some boundaries that we recommend that autistic people consider setting. In Part 2, we will go further and talk about specific things that can help autistic individuals set boundaries.

For individuals on the autistic spectrum, setting reasonable boundaries is really important. One of the biggest challenges faced by a good number of autistic people is navigating a neurotypical world. Most neurotypical people are very understanding and kind, however they may not be aware of the specific challenges faced by a given individual on the autistic spectrum. This means that without clear boundaries, autistic individuals may struggle to get the support they require from their neurotypical friends. Furthermore, setting boundaries is a good way for autistic people to advocate for their needs, which can help with their wellbeing.

One of the fundamental barriers to setting boundaries is the fear of being disliked or rejected for asserting our needs. For some of us, we can easily recall a time in our lives when we were invited to a party, or a social event, which we really didn’t want to go to. The idea of saying “I’m sorry, but I don’t fancy going” – and explaining the real reason – is enough to make some of us break out into a cold sweat. We can already picture the repercussions: whoever invites us persuades us to come along with them, because they know we’ll have a great time. To say “no” seems contrary to cultivating a close friendship or relationship, even if it means not meeting our own needs. And this is a trap many of us can fall into. 

The fear of being disliked, or feeling like our boundaries are unreasonable, is particularly pronounced for autistic people because at some point many of us have been conditioned to feel like our requests are unreasonable. This, in combination with worrying that setting boundaries will further isolate us from the neurotypical people in our lives makes it difficult to properly enforce them, or even begin to. This is particularly the case if we know people who get upset when we set them, or do not listen to our requests and kindly adjust to accommodate us. Here are some things Mollie and I do to help set boundaries so that we do not overstretch ourselves while remaining respectful to others. 

Niraj’s boundaries

Avoid video calls after work where possible

During the pandemic, I interacted with my friends a lot via video calls. Whilst this helped to keep in touch with friends, after a while I struggled with Zoom fatigue, and I found that video calls took up a lot of energy. I have a busy schedule both inside and outside of work, and I tend to get very tired after a long day at work. As I don’t really enjoy video calls, combined with the fact that video calls add to my tiredness, one boundary that I set is to not have video calls with friends on a weekday when I am working, unless it is genuinely important. This allows me to relax or do other productive things that help my wellbeing. 

Prioritising meaningful friendships over my surface level ones

This is an example of a boundary I set for myself.  Being on the autistic spectrum means that I face challenges of navigating a neurotypical world, which makes me more prone to fatigue and exhaustion. Because of this, I find that I only have a limited amount of energy when it comes to maintaining my friendships. I value my friendships a lot, and if I try to maintain every single friendship that I have, then I wouldn’t be investing enough time and energy into the friendships that are more meaningful to me. Therefore, I am prioritising the friendships that I find more meaningful and value the most, and stepping back from the surface level type friendships. This is an important boundary for myself to allow me to maintain my friendships effectively. 

Mollie’s boundaries

Explain that you need some time to think about the invitation first

How many times have you been invited to something and said you can go in the moment, only to regret it later? One helpful way that I set boundaries with others is to explain that I need to take some time to think about the invitation, and whether or not I will be able to go. This gives me time to consider what I would like to do before committing to it. If I’m unsure whether or not I can or want to attend an event, I tend to say something like “Let me check my schedule, and I’ll get back to you” or “I’m not sure if I can come, can I let you know tomorrow?”. This gives me the time and space to properly consider the invite, rather than feeling forced to say yes or no in the moment. 

Identify and communicate when I have reached my limits 

What I find particularly helpful when managing my mental health is a two-pronged process: identifying when I am overstretching myself, and communicating this to others. In the first stage, I ask myself questions like: Have I been working too hard to take something else on? Am I feeling more emotional than usual? Would I be relieved if I didn’t have to do X? These questions help me to identify where I’m currently at, and whether adding something extra into my schedule would be too much. The next step to this process is to communicate this to others, particularly if you have to say “no” to things you may have already agreed to. For example,I would say something like “I know I said yes, but I had not considered the other things I have going on. I’m afraid I won’t be able to do X”. It’s important to remember that you’re allowed to set boundaries, you can’t pour from an empty cup after all. 

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