What does ‘safe’ mean to an autistic adult?
Safe is a very loaded word for me. It means so much more than people realise. A safe person. A safe place.
To appreciate a safe place, let’s consider an unsafe place, i.e., 99% of the world, to me. Being in a crowd of moving people can feel like I am the height of a toddler, looking up at these intimidating figures around me. Touching me, bustling into me, all moving, all predators. That’s how it feels. I feel scared to move and touch someone, I want to escape the maze I can barely see through as my mind spins.
The moment I leave this flat my guards go up and I try to survive the day. It’s like being in a survival method of a game where the waves of attacks keep coming. The world throws things at me that I have to overcome or get through. Noises, lights, communication. Being out of my home takes everything I have to just survive until I can walk back in my door again.
I do have one other safe place than my own home, my mum’s and stepdads’ home. A safe place is somewhere I can let my guard completely down. I am free of judgement (assuming no visitors), I am free from unexpected attacks. Especially within my own home which is obviously purposefully designed to meet my sensory needs. The Harry Potter stuff everywhere also goes a long way to calming me!
A safe person. Someone who I feel safe with. Not a common occurrence for an autistic person. I have two types of safe person. Three times in my adult life someone has come into my life and the second I am around them I feel completely safe. An overwhelming instinct within me tells me they are safe. It’s very hard to explain and very surreal to experience. This has happened once at university and once at each workplace. It’s almost like in every unsafe place my mind gravitates to the person I know will be safe.
The other kind of safe person is a learned safe person. Someone I didn’t feel instinctively safe with, but experience teaches me they are safe. My mum and siblings obviously supersede both categories, they have always been safe.
Safe people are those who allow me to, and support me in, functioning in a very scary world. If you are not autistic and reading this, don’t underestimate how scary the world is for us. I know I misunderstand stuff. I know my sense of danger, my special awareness, and ability to react, are scarce. I can go into meltdown and shutdown, losing control of my mind in the process. Sensory and communication challenges aside, I am not naïve enough to be unaware of the risks of life outside of a safe place, without a safe person. This is why safe people are so important. If I didn’t have them, I would have zero quality of life.
I wouldn’t have got through university without my instinctive and learned safe people. I wouldn’t have got this far in the workplace. Anyone can be a learned safe person; just show us we can trust you. Show us that when the world gets scary, you have our back. You won’t judge or question our reactions. You will protect and support.
The hardest thing for those in my life is to get the balance between ‘babying’ me and supporting me. I am a 28-year-old adult, I am not a child. But sometimes, when the world gets scary, I just want someone to tell me I am safe, and everything is going to be okay.
Don’t underestimate the affect you can have on an autistic adult’s life.
To everyone that is supporting us – Thank you.