Understanding Why Autistic People Need Alone-Time
When my autistic children were in school, they used to need about 90 minutes of alone-time when they got home with no demands or interruptions. I respected their need for a quiet period to regroup and recharge their batteries before connecting with me. As adults, they still have this need to have time to themselves, finding it throughout the day. Alone time keeps them regulated, calm and happy.
I recently stumbled upon Ph.D candidate Florence Neville’s summary of her study on the wellbeing benefits of alone-time for autistic people. Her PhD research is about finding out how and where autistic adults choose to spend time alone, and what they feel the benefits of alone-time are. Florence defines alone-time for her research as:
- being by yourself where you won’t being interrupted by other people
- being in a space where one feels comfortable
- choosing what to do in this time and space
I would like to share Florence’s findings because she touches on an important need for autistics and that alone-time should be supported and respected.
The Four Themes
Four themes emerged from the autistic participants that Neville interviewed.
1. Reacting to Social and Sensory Overload
Neville found that her participants felt overwhelmed by social input, sensory input and needed to mask. Difficult, intense, or long periods of being in a social space was often emotionally or physically distressing. Sensory input encompassed a variety of things such as bright lights, background noise, and uncomfortable temperatures. Being in social spaces made it harder to control sensory input (ex. classrooms, workplaces, busy restaurants, family gatherings).
I wrote an in-depth post on autistic masking. Autistic masking, camouflaging, or compensating is a conscious or unconscious suppression of natural autistic responses. It is hiding or controlling behaviors associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) that may be viewed as inappropriate in situations. Autistic people may feel the need to present or perform social behaviors that are considered neurotypical or may hide neurodiverse behaviors in order to be accepted and fit in.
Dealing with social and sensory input, and masking is overwhelming and exhausting. It can leave a person feeling irritable or frustrated. This feeling of being overwhelmed can lead to meltdowns or shutdowns.
2. Retreating to a Safe Space
Autistic people need safe spaces to retreat to in order to get away from social input or negative sensory input. Safe spaces can help with recovery from overload. These spaces will mean different things to different people.
An indoor space could be:
a) a minimalist space
b) spaces where temperature, light, sounds, and smells are controllable
c) cozy spaces (a one-man tent, a hammock, bean bag chair)
d) an interesting space (for my son, that would be one with a ceiling fan in it)
e) a space that is set up for preferred activities (art corner, puzzle table, reading chair, sewing station)
a) places to feel less inhibited
b) places with sensory input that feels good
c) spaces to think clearly
In a busy household, sometimes waking up before everyone else or going to sleep once everyone else is in bed is the only way to get alone-time. (I do a combination of both of these to satisfy on own need for alone-time.)
3. Immersion/Flow States for Regulation, Recovery and Recharging
Being immersed in enjoyable, interesting activities help with recovery and recharging the batteries. Some of Neville’s participants called this being in a flow-state. Damian Milton, autistic scholar, has an excellent video explaining what the flow-state is. Getting into a flow-state for some people can only happen after spending time in a safe space.
Spending time in immersive activities can help with processing thoughts and emotions that have built up throughout the day, or provide a break from worrying and anxious thoughts. For example, my daughter finds bike riding a great stress release and helps her to recover from anxious, perseverative thoughts. My son recovers and recharges by listening to classical music or coloring.
Fictional worlds can feel safer, easier and more predictable than real-world environments. These make-believe worlds can be great stress relievers. My daughter spends much of her free time writing stories about Sonic characters on the Wattpad site. My son finds watching Thomas the Tank Engine episodes comforting.
4. Ready and Able to Reconnect
Neville’s participants wanted to be sociable and reconnect with other people after having some time apart. They needed time to recover, recharge, feel rested and calm before going into social spaces again. Sometimes it was helpful to create a schedule around socializing and alone-time in order to balance the two and not get overwhelmed.
COVID-19 lockdowns presented problems for people who lived alone but enjoyed seeing other people during the workday, and for people who were used to being along during the day but now had their family home all day. Both groups lost the ability to balance alone-time and time with others.
When ready to reconnect, autistic people were more likely to enjoy social events in small groups, based around a shared interest, or with other neurodivergent people. Socializing based around an activity (hiking, crafting, or watching films) meant less pressure to mask. Activities based on social events of interest attracted other neurodivergent people who understood sensory sensitivities.
Why We Need to Understand These Four Themes
Understanding these four themes can help people in supportive and caregiver roles to provide safe spaces to retreat, to not take it personally when an autistic person needs time away, to allow opportunities for breaks in the day, and to encourage the pursuit of interests and enjoyable activities to experience flow-states. Alone-time is necessary for recovery, reducing overload, and supporting wellbeing. The world can be a busy, confusing, and overwhelming place. Time to retreat will leave an autistic person better able to focus, learn, engage, and regulate.
Note – If you’re autistic and have a strategy that helps you to feel happy and healthy and want to share it, please consider contacting Autism HWB in the UK to submit your story.
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