In 2019 I carried out a study to explore how late-diagnosed autistic women (like me) managed their health and wellbeing. You can read the summary of my findings here. This is the third of four blog posts describing the themes I identified when analysing the interviews. You can find the first one here and the second one here.
Theme 3: individual environments
When I started my research, I was looking to find out how strategies such as diet and exercise were used by the participants to improve their health and wellbeing. But everyone also talked about how vital it was to find or create helpful environments, routines and time alone. Each of these helped to counteract the fatigue and overwhelm that daily socialising and camouflaging; sensory triggers and unhelpful day-to-day patterns caused.
Spending time alone was necessary to recover from the stresses of socialising and to become resilient for future socialising. This time might be spent reading, being creative – more on this in my next post – exercising, meditating, napping, or just ‘being’. Being alone also gave my participants the space to follow their own routines, which helped them to feel at peace and reduce ‘decision-fatigue.’
Everyone needed time in nature, where they experienced less sensory overwhelm because the lights, sounds and smells didn’t feel so stressful. Some talked about places they returned to often, the beach, a particular tree, or their own wildlife-friendly gardens. They didn’t feel the need to mask or camouflage, they had less sensory and social information to process. Instead they felt at peace and had a sense of being recharged.
People’s homes were very important and some felt that having control of the environment around them supported them in feeling less disabled. In contrast, noises generated by other people (talking, eating, breathing, typing etc.), traffic or electric humming; electric lighting and extremes of temperature caused distress and fatigue.
Luke Beardon, in his wonderful book Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Adults, talks about the model autism + environment = outcome. An autistic person in a chaotic environment filled with sensory or social triggers may quickly find themselves heading for a meltdown or shutdown. Meanwhile, that same individual might thrive in an environment that doesn’t trigger a stress response. The participants described their needs for natural spaces, creative spaces, time alone and other spaces where they could be themselves without masking.
Over the coming weeks we hope to publish contributor stories about what health and wellbeing benefits they get from the places they like to spend time in. Do you have somewhere in nature you return to time and time again? Do you have your home set up as a sensory haven? Or have you created outdoor spaces where you can escape from sensory and social demands? We’d also like to know what helpful routines people have developed and what people get up to when they have that precious time alone. If you would like to be a contributor for this community please get in touch!