Boundaries and buffer zones

Boundaries are difficult for autistic people. There’s a lot to process. First, you have to know what your body really needs – you have to interpret the signals. Then, you need to translate that into the physical reality of a solution. Although Aspies don’t necessarily lack imagination, deficits in “social imagination” – which I understand to mean some magical crystalisation in your brain of real potential situations and solutions pertaining to your actual physical and social environment – is one of the classic “triad of impairments” characterising Asperger syndrome. Ergo, you may struggle to work out what boundaries to set. And finally, of course, you have to communicate your boundaries to other people.

The act of setting and enforcing boundaries is covered fairly broadly over different areas of the “blogosphere”. Its relevance spans a vast array of contexts: anxiety (including the non-clinical sense), mental health, disability, women’s rights and the LBGTQA arena, and probably many more. The initial focus of such literature, particularly in relation to mental health, is often around giving oneself permission even to consider the subversive act of setting boundaries. (Subversive because, in a culture which prizes conformity, deviating visibly from the “normal” profile of assumed needs and preferences can be an uncomfortable act.) This is a helpful starting point for autistics as well, as it allows us to recognise explicitly the fact that we are individuals and that our feelings and selves, however different, deserve for that no less protection and respect. However, something that sometimes seems lacking in the literature for those literally-minded of us is: where exactly should those boundaries be set?

Identifying what you need and where your “red line” sits is part of this. But there’s a little more to it than that. One of the issues I had when first setting boundaries was that I tended to tell people exactly where they were. And in actual fact, you really don’t want to do that. If you tell someone where your boundary is, and they are in fact a boundary-crossing fucktard, you will get hurt. You don’t want that. Enter the concept of a “buffer zone”.

Setting up a buffer zone around your boundaries is hard. It’s even harder when you’re new to setting boundaries, and you haven’t quite got used to the idea that you deserve them. (You do. Everyone deserves to feel safe.) But it’s crucial. Here’s how it works.

You have a boundary. Say it makes you really uncomfortable to be touched – not uncommon for some of us with sensory sensitivities. You’re chatting with a new friend and they’re standing quite close by, you’re starting to feel a little anxious. If they move unexpectedly, you’re going to get hit. But you don’t say anything, because strictly speaking they haven’t crossed your boundary.

Just take a breath and feel it when their sleeve brushes your arm. Are you sure you want to risk that?

You could wait until you’re twitching. You can push it all the way to that point where fear is almost visibly seeping from your every pore. Sometimes I hum or squeak when I’m in that space. It’s obvious you’re scared, and your new friend doesn’t understand why.

Anxious you, twitching slightly: “It hurts me to get touched. Can you back off a little?”

Defensive them, offended by what looks like a massive over-reaction: “Don’t make such a fuss! I’m nowhere near touching you!” Houston, we have a problem!

Or instead, you could act now. “Hey, I have a personal space bubble and it’s this big!” You’re backing up a couple of steps to the required distance and waving your arms a bit to draw out your circle. You’re smiling at them, if you can. You’re making it low-stakes. You are literally drawing your very own buffer zone.

Maybe they’re defensive. Maybe they hold the distance and maybe they don’t. But here’s the thing: you made a buffer. So even if they do – accidentally or otherwise – cross the line you set, it doesn’t matter. You don’t get hurt. And by making a buffer, you can be less anxious – making them less defensive. You dial it down a notch. Everybody wins.

With friends you know well, maybe they don’t need a buffer. You’ve been around each other long enough to have a feel for how they’ll treat your boundaries. You’ve built up some trust. If they’ve treated your needs with respect, you can risk letting them in a little closer, one step at a time. But you don’t start with the red line. You don’t immediately show someone where the real boundaries lie.

Trust is hard. Boundaries are hard. Buffer zones make it easier. Even the mental image I’m conjuring of buffer zones right now is all squidgy and comforting. (This may be straying off track…)

Love yourself. Figure out what you need. Set your own boundaries. But don’t forget the buffer zone!