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)
Outdoor spaces can connect a person with nature, fresh air and peacefulness. Natural spaces away from people are:
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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I’m 55 and autistic, and I always need my alone time at least 90 percent of the time. Too much activity, being on the go, and socializing is very overwhelming to me because I am usually not a very social person. I would rather enjoy my quiet solitude at home either reading, watching TV with my mom, working on my Journal, sleeping in and staying up late, going online, playing with my realistic baby dolls, and looking through my vintage catalogs, even watching YouTube videos and shopping online, than go out and socialize unless I am out grocery shopping or on a doctor, dentist, or eye exam appointment. I have my own friends that I’d rather talk to some on Facebook and some in person than meet new people and make new friends. I’m just a homebody, but now that I live in an adult group home with one roommate and rotating day and night staffers, I feel like I always have to be on the go, and the only down time I’m allowed is on Sundays and in the evenings, it sucks, and it overwhelms me because I feel powerless to do anything about it. I liked the isolation of living at home with my mother, where I enjoyed going out only once a month for groceries with a friend or a neighbor, and I could stay at home the rest of the month to live in my pj’s and do whatever made me happy. It brought me comfort and joy, and it allowed me to just be me. I didn’t have to feel inhibited. I want that back, to get away from my group home, so I can be left alone, but so far I am not feeling heard or understood. I will keep on fighting, though.
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I’m in need of some serious advice. My Grandson is 5 and Autistic and I tell my Daughter in law that they should also test him for SPD and Misophonia .
And this is because of my reading about it.
My Grandson has so much going on, he has a routine he enjoys until it’s broken, he loves outdoors, his IPad, Cars and balls, music, music and certain sounds, some of his favorite items.
Then there’s those moments and days , life gets
real scary , a switch , and it’s overwhelming, exhausting and stressful for him and all who love him , especially me , it’s almost as if he’s going to have a heart attack from the emotional , internal trauma he seems to be experiencing.
He’s crying, yelling, screaming, putting his hands over his ears and fighting, scratching and his heart beats really fast and I cry to from the traumatic experience. I spend a lot of time with him, so it’s often that I see this side from this beautiful special , unique, intelligent, interesting, fascinating, smart loving boy to .
Most autistic people will also have sensory issues. What more than likely needs to be addressed is the creation of a sensory diet to lessen the overload that comes from too much sensory input. https://autismawarenesscentre.com/what-is-a-sensory-diet/ Following a sensory diet will help your grandson become more regulated and lessen these outburst.
You spoke of a broken routine – are we talking about transitions? https://autismawarenesscentre.com/successful-transitions-from-one-activity-to-another-for-individuals-with-asd/
What you are seeing is a reaction to stress. You could also consider learning more about the Low Arousal Approach and how to recognize signs of arousal and what to do before things escalate – https://autismawarenesscentre.com/what-is-the-low-arousal-approach-and-how-can-it-benefit-my-family/
Hi, I just wanted to comment on need alone time. I appreciate the info and how it is clearly stated. I am not Autistic but have worked with many Autistic children and some adults. When I read this info I identified that is me, how I really need that alone time when I get home or sometime during the afternoon or evening. I am much more content, comfortable, better regulated and happier with my alone time. I benefit from it on a daily basis and am irritated when it is missed in my day. I need it whether the day has included work or social or family or other activities. I do not need it after an outdoor activity or after practicing and playing music or baking. I also realize, if I need that to cope, how much more important it is for someone who is Autistic to function without it. A family I have worked with told me about their son, a young adult, who when driving home with his dad he can tell if his day was stressful, they will stop the car for him to walk around a while (Rural environment) and when done he gets back into the car and contentedly they head home.
Margaret, thank you for sharing your thoughts on this topic. I am the same way you are – I need alone time too to recharge and regroup. As a society, we tend to over schedule ourselves and have every minute of the day occupied but it comes with a price. The risk of overload is even greater for autistic people and I wanted people to know that allowing for alone time is just as important as organizing activities and school lessons. I love the story of the dad having his son walk around the car after a stressful day. We go for country drives with our kids and it really helps them.