“I have an immense appetite for solitude, like an infant for sleep, and if I don’t get enough for this year, I shall cry all the next.”
— Henry David Thoreau, 9 September 1857
Alone, not lonely
What do you do to relax or relieve your stress after a day of hard work or when you are down? If you are an extroverted neurotypical, you will probably find that engaging in social activities and hanging out with friends are the most effective cure; and if you spend most of your time cooped up indoors, chances are people will encourage you to get out more often as though the reason for all your stress and sorrow is caused by your spending too much time indoors. Unfortunately, socialising and occupying my time with social engagements and interests classes don’t work its magic on me, an introvert who also happens to be on the spectrum.
An acquaintance would use to ask if I ever felt lonely. I would look at her, amused by her question and replied no, period. Alone, not lonely; loner, not lonesome. I don’t feel lonely when I am alone. I’m more likely to feel lonely in the company of others or in a party than when I’m alone but I didn’t elaborate further because her views didn’t matter and explaining the joy of aloneness to a social extrovert would be like talking to a brick wall (except if I take this idiom literally, I talk to a wall more often than I talk to a person).
The importance of solitude
While everyone needs some space and time for themselves, solitude is of especial importance for someone on the spectrum given the individual’s sensory sensitivity to external stimuli. Professor Tony Attwood observes, “People with Asperger’s syndrome often find that solitude is a very effective means of relaxing. They may need to retreat to a quiet, secluded sanctuary as an effective emotional repair mechanism.” This is because when alone, the hypersensitivity for some sensory experiences is reduced. Also, in solitude, there is no qualitative impairment in social interaction to speak of. While I can’t speak for everyone on the spectrum, I can certainly relate to this and has come to the belief that my autism is only an issue insofar as when humans are involved. Without humans or if I can limit my contact with them (to an acceptable level I am comfortable with), I don’t give a heck whether I am on the spectrum or not.
While I hate to be forced to socialise and would strongly discourage people from doing so, I like to stress that not everyone on the spectrum is an introvert, some people on the spectrum are motivated to socialise and can feel lonely without social interaction. Nick Dubin reflects on his own experiences and on how to help children on the spectrum pick up social skills.
“Some children with Asperger’s are simply introverted by nature and don’t like being very social, while others are extremely social and try to fit in, without much stress. I was definitely the former. My social tolerance threshold was low in most situations and high with activities revolving around my special interests… It is imperative to find activities for children with Asperger’s that involve their special interests. These activities will build self-esteem and self-confidence more than any social skills group.“
While it may be a good idea to encourage someone on the spectrum to socialise by using their special interests as a motivating factor, I think it is important to make sure that the special interests activity is not and does not end up becoming a disguise for social interaction. The special interest is and must remain the focus for engaging in the activity. For instance, I used to join a hiking group and although I’ve made friends from the group, my focus and only reason for joining the group remains to explore the countryside on foot, whilst having friends are only a by-product of engaging in the activity. While everyone in the group shares a common interest in hiking, I gradually realise that to many others, joining a hiking group is also as much a social activity and things started to become more complicated and competitive. Gradually the pressure to socialise took over the joy of hiking. For this reason, I am very wary of interest groups and the social dynamics.
Friendship and respecting solitude: The need to be alone
However, having friends is important and I do need friends, albeit friendship with me would be a little different from the typical friendship where I imagine friends meet each other regularly and keep each other up to date with their lives. I like my friends but I don’t feel the urge to meet. I wish for forgiving friends who understand that my lack of initiative doesn’t mean I don’t value them and friends who accept and respect my need for solitude. The ideal friendship is one where we can just enjoy each other’s company without speaking or feel the pressure to speak (which makes cats the perfect companion). Essentially, I need friends and am grateful of their respect for my immense appetite for solitude. As Carol Hagland explains,
“Many of us feel a need to spend some time alone on occasions. For some people this need will be greater than others. For people with Asperger Syndrome it may be particularly important. Because social situations are so challenging and demanding for them, they often feel that they need time alone to recover and just be themselves… This time to regroup and recover is very important, and you should not begrudge the person with AS such time as and when they need it.”
Advocating for an autism friendly, sensory and solitude supportive environment
Being an introvert on the spectrum living amongst a society in which happiness is build on the more the merrier; and success that is predicated on social status, connection, relations and network; and job descriptions and activities that require or encourage team participation ~ during moments of despair, I sometimes feel that the greatest discrimination lies with the assumption that socialising is the default norm, expecting everyone to socialise and denying individual’s needs for solitude. In the context of individuals on the spectrum, this translates to the lack of measures and facilities to accommodate individual’s sensory needs, from our everyday environment, the residential, the community, the school and workplace to the countries we live in. As Magda Mostafa, a professor in architecture notes there is a lack of architectural design codes and standards for users with autism compared to other disabilities such as hearing and visual impairment and mobility challenges. Readers interested in Professor Mostafa’s research on inclusive built environments for autism may go to http://www.autism.archi/ (link opens in new tab) to find out more.
I have heard of places such as museums, zoos or cinemas with special opening hours for families and children on the spectrum. What constitutes a sensory friendly environment may differ from one autistic individual to another. However, we cannot dismiss the importance of the role that our environment play in our lives, even if we don’t have much choice over where we live or born. This is exactly the problem I’m grappling with right now. As Philip Wylie suggests, “The ideal place to live for some autistic adults is one that is free of all forms of pollution. People with ASD are vulnerable to sensory overload, so it is important that we live in a serene place that supports a relaxed lifestyle.“
There needs to be a better understanding of how the environment affects our well-being especially individuals who struggle with sensory processing. Our lives can be less stressful if people are more considerate of our needs; and ordinary people like you and me can help others just by being more considerate and show respect to the needs of the neurodiverse population, that is, mutual respect and kindness towards our fellow beings. For me, space and solitude are my priorities that are both missing in my current living environment, which leaves me to seek my sanctuary elsewhere.
Tony Attwood, The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome (2007)
Nick Dubin, Asperger Syndrome and Bullying: Strategies and Solutions (2007)
Carol Hagland, Getting to Grips with Asperger Syndrome: Understanding Adults on the Autism Spectrum (2010)
Philip Wylie, Very Late Diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome (2014)