Being thankful

On Saturday I wrote about building safe spaces. Today I want to talk about maintaining them.

Maintaining isolated safe spaces is easy. Living alone, I come home to an empty house where I can control of every aspect of my sensory environment. Struggling with visual processing? Turn the lights down, put on some soft music and close your eyes. Too much noise? Turn off the radio, put on slippers and carry a bubble of silence around you as you move. Completely overloaded and incapable? Curl up in a blanket and make sad noises, for as long as it takes. No one will judge you.

Some of my safe spaces were built with the help of allies. Finding out that other people could help me was a massive step in coming to terms with my autistic identity and embracing what that meant for my future. The help individuals have given me in building and maintaining safe spaces is something for which I am profoundly thankful.

Expressing emotions, including gratitude, is something I struggle with. But I’ve learned that it’s very important to let people know when they’ve done something special. It feels good when someone thanks me, and I know that’s not just an autistic thing! It doesn’t have to be complicated – you can write a template script for thanking someone. And it’s absolutely OK to email or write a “thank you” note if you (like me) struggle to approach individuals in person.

As well as making people feel good (which is only fair), a thank you reinforces the helpful action. A person reminded that they’ve done something good is more likely to remember and be willing to do the same thing next time. So as a mechanism for maintaining the sanctity of safe spaces, and sometimes for finding new allies, gratitude can be powerfully effective.

I don’t thank people indiscriminately. There’s a fine line between thanking someone for going out of their way, and thanking them for treating me (as an autistic person) with the basic dignity and acceptance they would afford to any human being. The line isn’t always clear, and varies for different people. But for me, here is what I aim to do:

I will thank someone for doing a particular bit of work, or for helping me with a task I was struggling with (whether or not due to my autism). We all have different strengths and weaknesses – maybe I will be helping them the next day. But I will not thank someone for working with me. Every person has a different working style; thanking someone for accommodating mine implies that mine has inherently less value than theirs.

I will thank someone for changing a planned activity, or going against the majority preference, to accommodate my needs. That might be choosing to go to a different pub for dinner because the first choice was too noisy or overwhelming. But I will not thank someone for being my friend. If I have to thank someone for tolerating my presence in a social environment, then they are not my friend.

I will thank someone for providing clear details in written format, whether after a meeting or in preparation for an event. That’s something most people don’t need and I do, so I’m always grateful when it’s accommodated. But I will not thank someone for listening to me and taking my words at face value. I say what I mean: nothing more, and (unfortunately!) nothing less. I don’t need to apologise for the words someone else has written in the gaps between my own.

I will thank someone for quietly explaining my body language or behaviour to avoid a misunderstanding. Particularly when I am stressed, it is very difficult for me to explain without making things worse. But I will not thank someone who knows me for letting me stim (rock or fidget) in a safe space without interruption. That’s a basic need, and they know that. I should not have to apologise for not masking in their presence.

But on a final, more positive note: one thing I will always thank a person for is if they have seen me in distress and done the right thing. Actually, I will thank anyone who has done their best to do helpful things, even if they got it wrong. The people who genuinely help you out when you’re melting down in a public place, or non-verbal, or shaking so hard you can’t sit still – the people who at that point still treat you as a person – are the people you want and need in your life. For those people, I am truly thankful.

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