The Importance of Boundaries for Autistic People

Following on from last week’s post, today I want to talk about boundaries.  Boundaries are magical things.  They keep us safe, they determine what treatment we will and won’t tolerate, and they give us a clear way to know when someone does not have our best interest at heart.  Healthy boundaries are essential for autistic people’s self-advocacy.  When autistic children are allowed to have boundaries, they gain confidence and a sense of self-worth instead of feeling dismissed and ignored.  The importance of autistic boundaries cannot be overstated.

How Can Parents Encourage Healthy Boundaries?

Respect your child’s “NO”.

I know some people may think that means giving in to a kid’s demands, but that isn’t the case.  It’s really quite simple:

If your child says “no” or “stop”, screams, cries, hits, or bites in response to tickling, hugging, or kissing, don’t laugh and keep going – stop because they said no, just like you would with an adult.  That response teaches the child that they are in charge of their own bodies and that they can decide if and how they want to be touched.  ABA’s “hand-over-hand” method of forced compliance does not respect a child’s right to bodily autonomy.  Forcing a kid to give affection – “give grandma a kiss”, “go hug your uncle”, etc – confuses kids as to when they can say no and when they’re “being rude” or “misbehaving”.  Let your kid say no.

When your child refuses certain clothing, don’t push the issue.  Don’t try to tell them “it doesn’t feel that bad” or “just ignore the tag” or any of that dismissive nonsense.  Simply offer another choice of clothes.  It shows your child that you accept and respect their feelings and keeps them from doubting their experiences.  This small change helps them be comfortable, which in turn keeps them calmer and helps to prevent the dreaded meltdown.

This seems like common sense to me, but I’ve read enough accounts to know it does need to be said: if your autistic child is having a hard time somewhere because they’re overstimulated or getting overloaded, allow them to get out of that situation so they can calm down!  I get that it may be inconvenient for you if your kid starts to act out in the middle of your grocery shopping, but that acting out is a way of saying “I’m not ok here and I need a break from all of this”.  Respect that behavior as communication and don’t force the kid to sit through something they aren’t tolerating well.  Would you be ok if someone told you to get a cavity filled without any numbing just because it didn’t hurt them?      

Listen to Your Child

In cases where teachers or other authority figures are in opposition to your autistic child, always ask for your child’s side of the story as well as the adult’s.  I’m not saying you should always assume your child is perfect and infallible and any teacher who complains about their behavior is automatically a monster – Heaven knows I have too many teachers in my family to suggest that!  But just don’t assume your kid is always at fault.

If a child knows that their parents will always believe an adult over them, they learn that they have no support and they will be made a scapegoat for everything.  They won’t bother trying to advocate for themselves because they will expect to be slapped down, and that will continue through adulthood.  Autistic children, especially those of us who are hyperlexic, precocious, and gifted, but socially inept enough that we correct our teachers all the time, talk too much, or otherwise “cause a disruption”, are particularly vulnerable to being targeted by teachers who don’t know how to deal with us.  When you’ve heard the adult’s side, ask your kid to tell you what happened from their perspective.  And listen.  If your child was out of line, explain why and how they could have handled it better.  If they weren’t, stand up for them.  Show them that they are worth fighting for so that they will fight for themselves instead of being a doormat.

How to Create and Maintain Boundaries as an Autistic Adult

First let me say: this is not easy.  Especially if you didn’t learn to set healthy boundaries as a child.  Setting and maintaining healthy boundaries is a skill that has to be learned and practiced, so be kind to yourself and don’t be afraid to call in a counselor or therapist for some professional backup.

First, Know Yourself

The first step to healthy boundaries is recognizing what you don’t want in your life.  Boundaries are a filter, to keep out toxic or dangerous influences.  So first, pay attention to the things that make you uncomfortable or that hurt you.

When people dismiss you or ignore your pain or distress, it may feel familiar – many of us grew up that way, unfortunately – but that doesn’t make it healthy.  Likewise, if someone uses your autism against you or blames you for everything, that’s not ok, either.  Start by noticing the actions and words that you don’t like, even make a list if you need to before you’re ready to go forward.

Then, Express Yourself

This is the hardest part, in my opinion.  Say “NO” and “STOP” when necessary.

When people do or say things that make you uncomfortable or outright hurt you, call them on it.  The first time you do this, assume that people weren’t meaning to hurt you, they just didn’t know that what they said or did bothered you because you hadn’t told them so yet.  Start with a pleasant, easy statement like “When you do that, it makes me feel [hurt/made fun of/ignored/whatever you’re feeling].  I really don’t like [touching/loud noises/ whatever it is that’s bothering you].”

People who care about you and have your best interests at heart will apologize and then try not to do that thing anymore.  They may not be perfect at it, they may slip occasionally, but they will do their best not to hurt you that way again.  Some people, however, may not take you seriously at first. 

It’s unfortunate, but there are people who will laugh or ignore you the first time you tell them to stop something.  With these people, when they inevitably do the same thing again, you need to get a bit sterner.  Say something like “I mean it, I hate it when you do that, it’s not ok.  Stop it.” 

If they still continue or they try to gaslight you or make you the bad guy for defending your boundaries, that’s when you pull out the unequivocal “DO NOT DO/SAY THAT TO ME AGAIN.”  This is a point you may get to with family members who have been acting a certain way toward you for your whole life and may not understand why it’s “suddenly” a problem.  It’s hard to use this against someone close to you, but if it’s a situation that’s gone on long enough and bothered you a long time, you’ll probably have a lot of frustration and anger pushing you forward – try not to let the anger take over and turn a declaration of boundaries into a knock-down, drag-out fight.

If Necessary, Protect Yourself

If you have set your boundaries, reinforced them, and told someone in no uncertain terms to stop that behavior and they still will not respect your feelings, you don’t have to take it.  People who act like that are toxic and you are not required to allow toxic people a place in your life.  You are nobody’s punching bag, you are nobody’s dumping ground.  If you have been nice, then not so nice, and then even rude and they don’t change, you have the right to remove them from your life.  This goes for everyone, from friends to romantic partners to family members – and that can be a big challenge.  I’m not going to tell you that you have to cut your parents or siblings out of your life, that’s a huge decision that nobody can make for you.  But there are options, like limiting contact.  Maybe just one phone call a week and every other holiday dinner, or maybe limiting visits to an hour or two (think ten minutes short of however long it usually takes things to go bad).  You might also want to take a trusted friend or a supportive partner with you for backup when you see those people. 

My point is that, once you’ve set your boundaries, you have the right to get away from people who don’t respect those boundaries.

Boundaries are magical things.  And like all magic, they take work and they come with a price.  As you learn to enforce your boundaries, people will disappear from your life because they don’t like the way you want to be treated.  But other people will come in to fill those spaces, people who appreciate your boundaries and treat you in a way that makes you comfortable and happy.

A worn fence with a sign reading "Private" surrounded by wildflowers. Text on purple background" "The Importance of Boundaries for Autistic People"

What has been your biggest challenge in maintaining healthy boundaries?  I’m getting better at stating them up front, but I’m not very good at backing them up yet.  Have you had to limit contact with family who refuse to respect boundaries?  Do you have advice for anyone who is trying to remove toxic people from their life?  What do you wish your parents had done when you were a kid to help you develop boundaries?     

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