One of the things I’ve come to realise I need more and more on an everyday basis is safe spaces. These are spaces where I don’t have to pretend to be normal, with all the anxiety and eventual exhaustion that can bring. In a safe space I can take off the mask, ignore what I have been told is the fundamental strangeness of my own body language, and concentrate on the task at hand.
Since I got my diagnosis I’ve worked on making lots of everyday spaces “safe” for me as I am. I started small: with little changes to my negative internal dialogue home quickly became a safe space, and I found some quiet places at work where I could escape for periods of respite. But then I started to look at work in the wider sense, as somewhere I spend 40 hours every week and have to achieve certain goals. I enjoy my work – especially when the science is going well – but I’m not given the space to be alone and concentrate. So I realised I had to try to make more working spaces safe, even though I might encounter other people.
The process was objectively straightforward, but slow, and it wasn’t easy. Starting with my manager and a few trusted colleagues, I took each person aside individually. I talked to them about the fact that I was autistic, and that my behaviours and responses might not mean what they expected them to mean. I told them about taking things literally and not always knowing how to act in social situations. The responses were generally encouraging, if awkward at times, and I gradually gained confidence in talking to people I did not know so well. Later I organised some formal training to help give my colleagues a wider overview of what autism actually means. Now my desk at work, despite the open plan layout, can be an almost-safe space maybe 90% of the time.
Recently I’ve started working on safe spaces for other parts of my life. I go to a couple of choirs, and I’ve started to pick out individuals who might be supportive. What I’ve realised is that unless there’s an outright bully in a setting like that, it only takes two or three people to know what you’re struggling with to make the space relatively comfortable. Making routine activities safe is the difference between fighting my environment every time I leave the house, and only fighting it once or twice a week. I have more energy to deal when things go wrong.
I’ve been really lucky in encountering positive attitudes with everyone I’ve approached. An integral part of that was being surrounded by the right people, but there was also work on my part to help things go smoothly. Painstaking care and preparation went into choosing who would make a good ally and who would not. It’s important to trust your instincts here: anyone I didn’t feel I could or should approach, I left to the formal training at work, and in other settings I have learned to avoid. Timing and setting are also important, if you can control them. Disclosing in a crisis (which has happened to me on occasion) is not ideal!
But the lesson I’ve learned over the past year or so is that while “alone time” is crucial as a safe space where I can be myself, it’s not the only one. Other people can help to build and defend safe spaces for me throughout my world. Those safe spaces will be more transitory, and less than the 100% safety of solitude at home, but they are there. Learning to identify those transitory spaces and ask for that help to build has given me more confidence, and I hope will continue to do so over the years to come.