For 25+ hours per week, I work one on one and in groups with autistic adults from all walks of life. You know one thing that seems to be a consistent issue for most people I work with? Taking up space.
Things like setting boundaries, saying no, disagreeing, taking risks, these are all issues that a lot of autistic people have challenges with. But why?
Well, I can’t say for sure but I have some theories. Many autistic (and neurodivergent people in general) have learned to disregard their own needs because they learned early in life that voicing their needs was not welcome and/or would be met with hostility. A significant number of autistic children learn quite quickly that if they show their true selves to others they will be pathologized and/or ostracized so they learn to adapt via creating a persona (aka a mask) that will be accepted by society.
When autistic adults begin the unmasking process (which never ends, btw), we come face to face with the fact that our entire lives have been carefully crafted around never showing who we are and therefore, never taking up space. Taking up space was too risky. We spent our lives policing ourselves to make sure we were never too inconvenient or contrary, lest we be rejected or attacked.
Once we reach burn out (as most high masking autistics will inevitably burn out), we are no longer able to access the high masking behaviors that kept us so small and in our minds, “safer”. We have to take up space for our own survival and yet, we have decades worth of defenses built against it.
So one of the biggest challenges we face as we unmask and heal from burn out, is the forces within ourselves that keep us small, convenient and quiet about our needs because we thought that kept us safe. While it did keep us safe in some ways, it hurt us too. In therapy and coaching, a lot of autistic people practice taking up more space, leaning into meeting their own needs over prioritizing others, and healing the trauma that taught them to become small in the first place.