Creating Autistic Spaces

I don’t have a comment policy on my blog. Why? Probably because if I did, I’d have to enforce it and that seems like a lot of work. What I have instead is a guiding principle: this blog is autistic safe space.

A safe space is a place–physical or virtual–in which harassment, hatred or violence against a group is not tolerated. Some safe spaces try to be universally safe, with a goal that no one will be made to feel uncomfortable or unwelcome based on race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, cultural background, age, or physical or mental ability. While I think that’s a wonderful ideal to aim for, that’s not what I’m doing here.

This is specifically autistic safe space. That means that I’m specifically vigilant about comments that promote hatred, stigma or violence against autistic people. How is that different from safe space in general?

Well for one thing, some people are going to feel unwelcome. For example, people who want to come here and complain about how miserable the autistic person in their life makes them? Unwelcome. People who want sympathy and a gold star for putting up with an autistic partner? Unwelcome. People who talk about the autistic person in their life in a demeaning or dehumanizing way? Unwelcome.

Autistic safe space means that autistic people can (hopefully) read the posts and comments here without having to worry about encountering hateful or demeaning speech. It also means that autistic communication styles are respected and we can talk about the hard things without worrying about someone making fun of us or using our words against us.

Sometimes things get a little messy in the comments, but I do my best to keep everyone on the safe side of honest, engaged discussion.


Other Kinds of Spaces

I think of autistic safe space as a kind of middle ground, between autistic friendly space and autistic space. There isn’t necessarily a clear definition of each of the three, but for the sake of helping people new to these concepts understand them better, I’ll take a stab at describing them.

Autistic friendly space tends to be predominantly allistic space which has been modified to make it more welcoming to autistic people. For example, sensory friendly film showings or an event that features flapping instead of clapping, is held in a hall without fluorescent lighting, requests attendees to be fragrance-free, provides communication badges, has a quiet area and does not allow flash photography.

An autistic person isn’t necessarily going to feel totally comfortable in autistic friendly spaces, but there are considerably more accommodations made than in the typical public space.

An autistic safe space takes the concept of autistic friendly space one step further, putting the autistic person’s needs first. Often safe space has a greater emphasis on safetyΒ with regard to identity and expression whereas friendly space has a greater emphasis on disability accommodations.

Online, autistic safe spaces are very much about safe speech. In person, the concept is extended to physical expression, meaning that things like stimming and atypical communication are welcomed and accepted rather than simply tolerated. Safe spaces are often a place to explore difficult topics and push at boundaries without the fear of rejection or humiliation.

Autistic safe spaces can be mixed spaces, but are generally autistic led. Sometimes this works out really well, with people of different neurologies sharing experiences and learning from each other. And sometimes it turns into a disaster. I’ve seen both cases firsthand and, ironically, when things go wrong in a safe space, people can be hurt badly. Much more so, it seems, than when things go wrong in typical public spaces.

Finally, there is autistic space. I was going to define autistic space as one in which all participants are on the spectrum, but then I realized that my home is autistic space. It’s a place where I feel completely comfortable to be myself and where my communication style is honored. It’s a place where I have minimal sensory distraction. A place where I know what to expect.

Perhaps autistic space is a cultural construct rather than something that is created strictly by the neurology of the participants. And that feels like an idea that’s too large to get into in the final lines of a post, so I’m going to set it aside for another day.

49 thoughts on “Creating Autistic Spaces”

  1. This was lovely. It is why I am so comfortable here and I am always amazed at the general dialogue in the comments too. Usually online the comments sections are horrid. I also try to do this for my space and I agree that my home is the ultimate Autistic safe place too. In fact, other Autistics have come in and said they feel at home because of my use of colour, and comfort…

  2. . Going to be imprecise, maybe…and not edit this…perhaps it wasn’t intended as such, but this is reinforing and enabling a goal of mine right now – like a building block that was missing from a contruction. My self, role and place, as the world sees it, vs my role as I want and need to see it. Finding a helathy way through situations that are social has always been difficult if not disastrous for me. > Your writing reminds me to shine a (soft) light on the issues and struggles and that it is valid to be “standing” where I am standing. < It is a struggle, usually just doesn't get included at all – to include me and my needs because most often all the input from others doesn't 'reveal' me. In other words "I" usually disappear in my own thinking processes. Thank you for writing!

    1. I think I get what you’re saying. Having places and people that reflect ourselves and our experiences is really important, especially for those of us who don’t fit the typical molds. Thank you for always sharing your thoughts and contributing the conversations here.

  3. Are the needs of all Autistics similar? or do you have to handle conflicting needs? And, if so, how? A concrete example I’ve found is the need of some to make noise (i.e. hum, sing) and the need of others to have quiet. Not so much a problem in a online space (and potentially, another reason why online spaces can be useful), but in a physical space?

    1. Conflicting needs is a real problem and one that can be hard to resolve to everyone’s satisfaction. And conflicting needs do sometimes arise in online spaces. For example, when one person has a need to talk about something as part of exploring their identity (which is often one of the goals of safe spaces) and another person in that space finds the subject triggering and wants it to be excluded from the conversation. I’ve seen spaces break down over conflicting needs that couldn’t be resolved.

      It’s probably impossible to create a space that addresses everyone’s needs perfectly because each person will have some needs in common with others and perhaps some conflicting needs. Friendly and safe spaces tend to aim for the low hanging fruit–the accommodations and rules that will positively affect the greatest number of people. For example, banning the use of certain types of language (hate speech, bigotry, slurs) will generally be universally welcomed. Reducing sensory triggers (fluorescent lights, flashing lights, strong scents) is another accommodation that can a big difference to a lot of people without a great risk of creating conflicting needs.

      But when you talk about stimming, for example, one person’s right to express themselves physically might directly infringe on another person’s need to not be around certain kinds of sensory input. And then it becomes a question of whether the stimmer can switch to a different stim for the time being or the person who is being triggered can do something to block out the input, like using noise canceling headphones. There are definitely no easy answers to some of the conflicts that might arise. Great point!

    2. With regards to your question about sharing the same physical space… When I was in the process of getting my diagnosis, I helped out a friend who had been thrown out of her home by letting her stay with me for a while. It was a stressful time for both of us, as you can imagine. My house doesn’t really have a place where either of us could be completely alone, so we spent a lot of time in the same areas of the house, just doing our own thing and interacting when we felt like it. That’s when I started seeing a lot of behaviour in her that I recognised from my own diagnosis, and realised that she was probably on the spectrum too. But nevertheless, the constant foot tapping and humming and other stims definitely got on my nerves. What made it an autistic space was that I recognised her need to cope with her stress in this way, even while it was adding to my stress at the same time, and vice versa. Because I’m pretty sure that she didn’t enjoy my ways to cope with that stress either, even though she didn’t complain. It’s more about acceptance and recognising that it is a perfectable acceptable way to deal with things, instead of trying to make everyone perfectly happy.

  4. I have mixed feelings about the idea of my home as an autistic place. Not sure, why. I guess to need to explore that a bit, for myself. Possible connected to my dissatisfaction with the lack of friends and family in my life and my desire/goal to make my home more friendly to guests. Also, my (I think) Aspie husband (def has Social Avoidant Disorder, at the least), my extroverted (!?) Autistic toddler, my sensory challenged and possibly ADHD stepdaughter, and my Aspie self all have very different needs, so who gets to be more comfortable and where?
    All of that aside, I will say that I having been fighting tooth and nail to carve out a spot- and finally prevailed in getting an entire room- to work, relax, and enjoy my hobbies. It smells the way I want. Is visually pleasing and arranged for my comfort. It has all of my stuff there where no one can dissarrange it. And the lighting is all me. My husband has been feeling like this was an example of my lack of love and commitment to our relationship, but after reading this,meverything has clicked into place. I don’t want to be alone because I don’t like being around family (thou I have my moments) I want a space that is completely “Kashi-friendly” and that is hard to find πŸ™‚ I have to make my own!
    Interestingly, I don’t even spend huge chunks of time there. I just need to know it exists, for when I do need it.

    1. In a large family with so many competing needs, getting even a room to yourself sounds like a victory! πŸ™‚ It’s kind of sad that your husband has a such a negative view of you having your own space. We each deserve to have our own personal space, even within a loving committed relationship. I’m glad this helped you to work out what your room means to you. Hopefully your husband will come around to understanding how important it is to you.

      1. To be fair, he does intellectually understand why I want it. He just doesn’t get why I might want to use it in the moment, nor why it has to have a bed in it (because I experience extreme fatigue and also because my hyper-sensitivities interfere with sleeping at times – especially a problem when his sensory issues require a high output fan to blast us all night long.)

          1. Oh no. All hell would break loose if I actually spent my nights iin another bed. But using it at other times or having it available in case of a particularly bad night, is critical.

  5. This post gets at an important distinction that I hadn’t thought about clearly before. As an Autistic librarian, I focus a fair bit on ways we can ensure that libraries are autistic friendly spaces. Now I’m wondering if this shouldn’t be taken a step further. Perhaps we ought to work towards carving out autistic safe spaces within the context of the library… Anyway, thank you for an insightful post! It’s given me lots of good stuff to think through.

    1. I find libraries in general to be amazingly autistic friendly. πŸ™‚ It’s awesome that you consciously make an effort to create autistic-friendly space. I’ve actually never stopped to think about what an intentionally autistic friendly library might look like so now I’m curious.

    2. Just some ideas:

      Provide a bank of headphones, like you see in music stores such as Virgin Records
      Soundproof the rooms with carpet and drapes and padding coveted in vinyl (so it can be cleaned)- I’m always amazed when I see libraries or study halls that have bare floors, etc that amplify every footfall or whisper.
      Have a couple of sound-proof booths, with adjustable lighting, etc., such as music recording studios use, for stimming

  6. It would be really wonderful if someone would put the time and money into researching the best way to accommodate AND INTEGRATE neuro-typical and ASD/Sensory Disorder space sharing. I don’t happen to think the needs of anyone with ASD should trump the needs of others, but they should be equally important.
    It seems to me there must be certain environmental factors that are nearly universal, for instance, calm but not dark lighting. What about extreme sound-absorbing building/decorating materials so people can stim and others won’t be as over-stimulated by it.
    One example comes to mind: movie theaters. What about a large space in the back where people could get up and stand and quietly move a bit, without disturbing those closer up, while also not requiring them to leave the auditorium themselves? What about headphones similar to the 3D glasses they have now, that plug into a system similar to what is on airplanes? Then one could adjust the screen lighting and audio to taste? This would help block out any audio stims (or rude movie talkers). I would pay for that.

    1. I think you nailed a common misconception about accommodations and disability friendly space here. It’s not about the needs of the disabled person coming before or above everyone else. It’s about finding ways to give disabled people equal access to the same experiences that everyone else is enjoying. There’s a great cartoon that illustrates this and I wish I could find it. It has three people of varying heights standing looking over a fence and, uh, that’s all I can remember about it . . . :-/

  7. +10 on the post πŸ™‚
    At home I have my own room. It’s a study/lab/hi-fi/junk-collection and it’s mine. I had at the last house to. If I didn’t I’d be hiding in the garden shed on a regular basis. I have this need to be on my own in my own environment. My paternal granddad was always to be found down the bottom of the garden in his shed – whilst there were at least 2 perfectly good sitting rooms in the house. Makes me wonder if he’d have been diagnosed Aspie if he lived in more recent times? He’d be 110 or something if still alive. My dad too maybe now I think about it. We’re all a bit ‘special’ on that side of the family πŸ˜‰ Any how, sadly I can’t claim my entire home as aspie safe since my other half somewhat begrudgingly puts up with me 😦

    1. I’m realizing how fortunate I am to feel like my home is autistic space. Think I’ll go explicitly thank my husband for that. But even within my house, I’ve always tried to have my “office” which is my own personal work space and no one else’s. That seems to mitigate my need to influence the rest of the house too much because I know I have a place to escape to when needed.

  8. I have to go out now but I just wanted to say many thanks, yet again a really interesting post πŸ™‚ Given me much to think about.
    I have spent my whole life from about aged 8 designing on paper small comfortable living spaces just for me. Still doing now at 50 a couple of years after diagnosis – they make wonderful ‘mental’ retreats. The current one is a small house on a trailer so I can take it with me…

  9. For years I’ve yearned for places like grocery stores and huge department stores etc., to have, say, one day a month (a minimum) in which the store turns its music off, turns its loudspeakers to a much lower volume or off, the lights down as low as possible or use only windows with curtains over them, and limits the numbers of people in the store at a given time. I know I am being un-realistic, but one can dream. (And this seemed a good time and place to share this.)

  10. I read today’s post before setting off for work, and I was a bit anxious about it the whole six hours, hoping that I am not an unwelcome presence when I comment, given that I test as “neurotypical” (though closer than many NTs to a spectrum score on the Aspie quiz). Definitely I have sometimes / often felt self-conscious about joining the conversation from my “outsider” perspective. I’m a student of social work specializing in work with children and youth, and I have found that so far I have a strong affinity for kids on the spectrum. But that’s actually not what brings me here, although I often find Cynthia’s posts, and people’s comments, informative. The reason I found this blog and subscribed is that I find it comforting as I cope with the absence of someone important to me. If the idea of my presence were unsettling to anyone, I would want to do something to fix that, even if it meant not commenting anymore. I hope, though, that if I ever wrote anything that bothered anyone – anything that seemed obtuse or misplaced – that that person could just let me know. As I said, it’s been helpful for me personally, coming “here,” spending a little time in this climate of mutual support. So thank you all for that.

    1. Oh no, my intention wasn’t to make any of my regular commenters anxious! I’m so sorry it impacted you that way.

      The “unwelcome” statements in my post were aimed at people who leave nasty comments that never make it out of the moderation queue. Trust me, if I thought your comments were inappropriate in the way this post is about, you wouldn’t be allowed to comment here. I love the mix of viewpoints that everyone brings to the conversation. I really value the input of people of all different neurologies and backgrounds and relationships to autism. Differing opinions and views keep me honest and make me think hard about what I’m writing. I even like when people disagree with me! It’s the hateful stuff that I won’t tolerate and you definitely don’t fall into that category.

      So please don’t worry about your comments. You seem like a lovely person who has a lot to contribute. πŸ™‚

      1. “Thank you” seems both insufficient and redundant, but I’ll say it anyway. I’m so glad of your reply. Happy weekend!

  11. Having just recently been diagnosed at the age of 44, I read each and every post with the utmost interest and feel like I have so much to catch up on! I feel very comfortable in this “space”, feel welcomed, and I love to read all the comments with new ideas and perspectives on what affects us as Aspies. I command you for your dedication and the information that you share. Your book was a great source of comfort when I needed it the most, I felt I was not alone. Thank you! And thank you for keeping it a safe place for us to express ourselves, as there are too many skeptical, ignorant people out there putting us down on a daily basis.

  12. Lovin’ this blog….when Aspies need support and have questions, being able to find intelligent,useful information and non-threatening safe places is a good thing.

    1. BTW- its just about creating safe havens in homes not blogs:) Your blog is so informative and I love it…I do not have that gift in that area:)

    2. Wow! I think your home is gorgeous! So welcoming and colorful and homey. You’re a decorator, right?

      Okay, now that I’m done gushing over your house, I love the post. It’s so cool the way you went room by room detailing all of the big and small elements that are important to your space. And it’s really interesting to me to see how many beautiful things you surround yourself with because my house is the exact opposite. It’s almost spartan in its simplicity (we sold about 95% of our possessions when we moved 2 years ago, part mid-life cleansing and part “I’m not paying to move all this cross country”) and that suits me perfectly.

      1. Thanks:) LOL- I would not want to move all my stuff! I get that:) And some personalities find more calm with nothing on the walls but a calming, inspiring colour and perhaps some plants or one thing of art. Do you mind if I copy this comment for the post? It is good to have another voice on there:) I decorate as a hobby and will help friends on occasion, but generally its an obsessive interest in my own home. I do it instead of art when I am bored I change a room around:) I also seem to have an eye for the details and balance…

        1. You can use if it you like. πŸ™‚ As you say, I do have a few key meaningful items. I’m my office I have two pieces of art that are really meaningful to me on the walls and that’s it. My desk has just my husband’s and daughter’s photos on it and the rest is files and documents that I’m actively working on. The bar that separates our tiny kitchen from the living room has a huge vase of fresh flowers that I change each time I go grocery shopping. The living room is pretty sedate except for the bright red couch and ottoman. We may eventually start to accumulate stuff again when we settle into a house in a couple of years. But for now, I’m in the process of packing up to move again and so happy I have very little stuff.

          You have an amazing eye for color and arrangement of things. Your house feels so richly layered with textures and colors.

          1. That sounds lovely! Especially the red couch and ottomon! I love red and purple couches. They make such a difference. Moving sucks:( And is overwhelming. I admire you. The last time I moved I had a mini breakdown and my home never feels like mine till about a year later!

            Thank you:) My goal is comfort and magic…I always hope that people ( no matter taste) will walk in and feel like they have found some inspiration and respite…while still suiting our needs:) And I love textiles and layering:) Cold climate culture makes it more so I guess:) Oh canada…we still have snow…in fact it is supposed to snow again tonight:) So I value our textiles:)
            Thanks for the encouragement. I was having the worst sort of day and your comments completely cheered me up. Have a beautiful weekend!

  13. I’m a mother to three boys, and my middle 9 yr old son is autistic. I have tried as hard as I could to make our home both “autistic safe” and an “autistic space.” Since this is his home (Sam is his name), it necessitates that it be a place where he feels comfortable, accepted and welcome; able to express himself how he needs to, and allowing him to do what he needs to do for self-regulation. That means scripting. A LOT of scripting! But I am fascinated by his incredible abilities to memorize whole movie scripts after watching it once. Or memorizing the music so that upon hearing the full score for the first time three months after seeing the movie ONCE, he is able to tell me exactly what is happening in the movie at any given point in the orchestral score. (He did this with Frozen. Amazing!)
    We have a finished room in our basement that was originally supposed to be a huge master with a 3/4 bath (shower only, no tub) and has carpeting. I have used it as a playroom and as a family room, but recently created his therapy space. It still acts as a family room sometimes since it has a couch and big screen TV, but I was given a lycra swing we hung from the ceiling, he has a small trampoline, fun colorful lighting, and I made him a huge crash pad. I bought a huge amount of shredded foam online, and a friend had extra curtain material and sewed a huge bag for me. The material is kind of velvety, so it adds to the sensory experience. We also have thick gymnastic pads against the walls and furniture to protect him from swinging into something hard and hurtful.
    I often wonder if I’m doing a good job with him. We are trying our hardest to help him in whatever ways he needs and to be understanding of his “needs” even when they are frustrating – like waiting for him to finish lining up and adjusting his Lego minifigures as we’re trying to get out the door.
    I just found this blog and have read at least 5 posts in a row and just keep clicking away. It is so incredibly helpful to hear from an autistic adult who can help me think through things as I raise my young autistic child. I love him so much and just want the best for him – for him to fulfill the potential I KNOW he has and is already exhibiting. Thanks for writing! πŸ™‚

    1. Oh my gosh, can I come and live in your basement?! I’ve been wanting a sensory room like that for a while now and just don’t have the space (or initiative, I guess) to create one. It sounds like sensory heaven. πŸ™‚ It sounds like you’re doing a fantastic job helping him be himself and learn coping strategies that work for him.

      I’m curious whether he’s shown any interest in playing an instrument? It sounds like he’s especially tuned in to music and that it plays an important part in his memory and processing, er, processes.

      1. Ironically enough, he has zero interest in learning to play any instrument. It kind of hurts our hearts a little because my husband and I are both musicians. Mainly pianists, though my hubby plays trumpet, french horn, drums, guitar – his talent is ridiculous. Our oldest son, 10 years old, plays the saxophone and piano. I’m trying to get our youngest into violin. Not making very many strides there, lol. Sam is just not interested. He loves listening to music, but not playing it. I can’t help but wonder if there’s some deeper reason behind it? He makes me smile when we sing in church because he doesn’t like to sing “normally.” He makes grand gestures and makes his voice operatic-like, very loud and actually kind of silly-sounding. At first, we would whisper to him about showing respect in worship and to “calm down”, but later when I asked why he sings like that and he told me that he was being completely serious when he sings – it’s just that it’s too boring to sing the way everyone else does – we haven’t corrected him since. I take great joy in the way he expresses himself in worship!

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