Playing By the Rules
Remember playing tag? Trying to avoid the person who was “it” as they chased you around? Laughing and playing as kids dodged around running as fast as they could to not get tagged? There was always the time when running just a bit ahead of the tagger, who was gaining on you, that home base came into view. Heading towards home base and getting there first without being tagged… and you’re safe!! That wonderful feeling of being safe and catching your breath until you feel it’s okay to venture out again is priceless. Those are happy memories of family get togethers, when it’s planned for people to come to your house on a certain day, during a certain time, to have fun and then head home with a feeling of connection and belonging.
In reality, home is a safe place – home base. Analogous to playing tag, life can feel like you’re being chased, running from harsh realities, and home is where it is safe to catch your breath until it feels okay to venture outside again. Also, like tag, when someone comes onto home base to “tag” you, it’s against the rules and doesn’t count. One person not following the rules can cause high anxiety, feeling dysregulated, and misunderstood. Home base is supposed to be safe, period.
Venturing outside requires energy. It has its preparations. Many autistic adults go over and over in their thoughts where they are going, who they are going to see, how they are getting there, and what they will be doing. Also, in those thoughts are the social interactions that will happen, how they will handle them, what might go wrong, things that may have happened in the past when interacting with those same people, and preparing for topics of conversation. There other issues to think about as well, such as – Will the meeting place be loud? What will the smells be like? Will it be too hot? Will the lighting be too harsh? – all must be taken into account to prepare for success in a social interaction.
Such is the life of an autistic adult who struggles with social interactions to a point where preparation is necessary. Still, wanting to connect with other people and form friendships is desired more than the effort and energy it takes to prepare. It’s doable when getting ready to venture outside is done in the safety of home. Home is where the outside world can’t reach you. Home is where the colors, lighting, sound, smells, and familiarity are all just the way it’s supposed to be for the people living there. It’s where thoughts can be about comforting things such as special interests. It’s where social masks can be taken off and people can just be themselves. People can wear what’s comfortable, eat foods they like, put the temperature at the best setting, have soft lights, and manage smells to be soothing.
When someone, whether you know them well or not, comes into your home base unexpectedly – everything is shattered. It feels like an invasion. It is an invasion. No longer does it feel safe. Anxiety is the first to rear its ugliness. Masks have to be hastily put back on without preparation. Small talk begins taking energy that has been used up by the surprise, anxiety, and the sudden shove off of what had just been moments before – the safety of home. It feels like being a fish out of water, silently gasping for breath while feeling way out of your comfort zone. It’s wishing someone could sense your distress and excuse themselves to come back at another time, but the ability to mask is so well played out no one notices how you feel. Time comes to a slow, excruciating crawl. Will the visit ever end?
More importantly, will it ever feel safe at home again? Will every car that drives by the house invoke anxiety? Will every person who walks by the front windows compel a person to hide and pretend they aren’t home?
It must feel safe again. It doesn’t have to be presented as a failure on anyone’s part. It’s simply a rule that was broken, most likely because the person who came unannounced didn’t know it was a rule for some reason. Honesty is always the best policy. Explaining to the surprise visitor that a plan for them to come over is the best way to have a wonderful visit, and is a great way to start working towards a solution for everyone involved.
Tag is a great game to play, but only really works when home base is securely safe. Life is not a game, and so it’s imperative for home to be a securely safe place. Playing tag or living life – by the rules – is best for everyone.