Posted by: E (The Third Glance) | December 6, 2013

Living with an Autistic Roommate

Note: this post started out on facebook. What you see below is a expanded version.

To the person who came across my blog the other day by searching “Autistic female roommate”,

I’m glad you’re doing research on how to live with your roommate. As an autistic woman who lives with a roommate, I have had a number of really difficult interactions and issues, and in particular, my current roommate situation is incredibly dire, and I’m counting down the seconds until I am out of it, so I do have several suggestions that would make life better for everyone involved. In addition to this list, I would also like to refer people to this awesome post by Kassiane at Radical Neurodivergence Speaking called Autistifying My Habitat, which has some really great suggestions on living and creating Autistic-friendly spaces.

If you are living with an autistic roommate, I urge you to please consider the following:

-Your autistic roommate probably needs a lot more quiet time than you. This doesn’t mean that they dislike you, they just need more time to recharge their social batteries.

-Along these lines, it is likely that your roommate spends a lot of their day in some sort of workplace where the social demands suck up all of their energy – when they come home, they are probably running on empty (or in many cases, well past empty). They need quiet and space – they might not be able to come home and immediately engage with you. Again, this doesn’t mean they don’t like you. It’s just that their energy needs are different from yours, and interacting with you immediately upon return may be out of their abilities. Let them rest and recharge, and then see if they’re up to engage with you.

-Your autistic roommate needs some semblance of order and routine. This takes a different form for different people, so try to talk with them and develop compromises for your shared space. For example, in my apartment, I need the kitchen to be clean and I need one of the two sides of the sink clear. Otherwise I don’t eat, and that is really bad. So come up with a mutually agreed-upon chore schedule, post it somewhere visible, and keep to it.

-Remember, if you’re not sleeping in the same room, your roommate’s room is their territory, their space, and off limits to you without express permission (EVERY time you want to enter it… permission granted once is exactly that: granted once, NOT granted for all eternity). Your roommate needs time and space to relax and un-wind. They need to feel comfortable and safe in their living situation. A major part of autism is anxiety, and having my own space is really important for mitigating my anxiety. Please, respect your roommate’s boundaries.

-Your autistic roommate may have some habits that mystify you. Unless they are causing you physical or emotional harm, please don’t try to change them or stop them. Sometimes we need to do things differently to make sure our bodies and brains can function properly. (For me, these include things like curling up on the couch under blankets and not moving for hours. It includes spinning in circles and flapping our hands. Sometimes it includes communicating by writing things down instead of speaking, even if we’re in the same room. This is by no means a complete list. It’s just a few things that I do that are a little different from other people.)

-Sometimes no matter what you do, your roommate is going to get overwhelmed and melt down. This is something that happens. When it does, give them some space. If they are able to communicate their needs during a meltdown (this isn’t very common for a lot of people), then do your best to accommodate them. Sometimes self-injury happens during meltdowns. It completely depends on the person what you should do to help them (if anything). For me, I sometimes bite myself, usually not hard enough to draw blood, but sometimes bruise or leave a mark. Don’t interrupt me or try to stop it. The last thing I need during a meltdown is someone touching me. Usually I’m able to get myself shut in my bedroom before the meltdown starts, so you won’t see it, but still, it’s something to be aware of.

-COMMUNICATION is super important. You and your roommate have different communication styles, and by understanding that and accepting it right off, you’ll stave off a lot of frustration. Your autistic roommate may have trouble speaking with you about important topics or just in general. Discuss other ways to communicate with each other. While you may see a post-it note taped to your door as passive-aggressive, it may be the only way that your roommate can communicate with you, and her trying to be respectful but unable to communicate in any form of spoken words. Discuss ways of open communication that you can both use reliably. Emails are great. You can always send an email and follow up with an in-person discussion if necessary. “Dear X, Today I noticed there is a strange smell coming from the fridge. Would you mind cleaning your shelf soon please? Thanks!” can go a long way – much farther than a verbal “Hey, you need to clean the fridge”, which can put someone on the defensive, and might be forgotten about in a few minutes if the person on the receiving end is distracted. Also, if you use emails, there’s a paper trail, so it can help resolve fights.

-Remember that your autistic roommate may not be able to pick up on the subtle hints you’re giving them that you are less than pleased with something. Just tell them directly if something is bugging you, don’t expect them to read your mind and know how to fix it.

-Please, don’t invite people over without checking in with your roommate first and giving them some warning. This is a big one. Breaks in routine, especially at home, can be upsetting and difficult to deal with. I’m not saying don’t have your friends over to hang out. I’m just saying, please check in with your roommate and let them know your plans. That way they can be prepared for it, rather than coming home exhausted after a long day to discover a party going on in their apartment – I’ve had this happen, and let me tell you, it leads me straight down the spiral to meltdown, which is the last thing anyone wants. And if you do decide to have a party at your apartment, include your roommate in all stages of planning, and please don’t just assume they’ll agree. Parties are incredibly stressful for autistic people, so working together to compromise and come up with acceptable solutions is very important.

-On the same note of having people over, try to include your autistic roommate if you’re doing something with your friend at the apartment. Invite them to join you and your friend in dinner or watching a movie. They may refuse, for any number of reasons (food not safe for them to eat, too much social overload already, don’t like the movie, etc.) but please know that the invitation is really greatly appreciated. Don’t take one day’s refusal as a “never” – any number of variables plays into a decision like that, and they can all change at any point. And the invitation lets your roommate know that you are open to interacting with them.

-Your autistic roommate is a person, with likes, dislikes, and a personality. She is not just autistic. Find things that the two of you have in common and can do together, just the roommates (small groups are often better for autistic people to interact). This can include something like watching a TV show you both enjoy, or doing puzzles or a craft. Don’t force the activity (or social interaction) on your roommate every day, but you’ll find that with time, you will get to know your roommate on a level that is beyond “my roommate is autistic”. Soon you’ll discover that “my roommate loves to bake” and “my roommate got me hooked on this awesome show” are phrases that become more common and the “my roommate is autistic” line will fade away.

This is just stuff that I have come up with in my own experience, so I ask you, my dear readers, do you have any advice for living with an autistic roommate (either yourself, or you living with an autistic person)? What sorts of things have helped you live with a roommate? What things have roommates done that have made you crazy? Please leave your suggestions in the comments.

Living with an autistic person can sometimes be challenging, but with a little respect, trust, and alternative and open lines of communication, you may find that we make very awesome, loyal, and consistent roommates, and might even be the best roommate you ever have.

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Responses

  1. great post!! Insightful and well said. Thank you …..

    Kelly Baird Founder – Yea,Life!

  2. Wonderful post! I have never lived with an autistic roommate, but I have lived with roommates, and honestly everything you said holds true for me as well. I hope your roommate situation gets better soon E!

  3. Assign chores explicitly. In previous roommate experiences, I’ve either ended up doing most of the chore work because nobody else would do, say, dishes on time because there was no schedule and left a kitchen full of dirty dishes waiting for me when I got home, or too little because I don’t realize what others want me to do and they get resentful, plus my health and sensory issues make certain chores (sweeping, vacuuming, and anything dealing with slimy textures) a no-go for me. Get together at the beginning of a roommate arrangement and set out a chore schedule.

    As well: As an expansion to the “mystifying habits” thing: If you see the kitchen timer is set, ask your roommate, “Do you need the timer?” before you shut it off. It could be that the timer is your roommate’s way of remembering something. Like, say, taking laundry out of the washer before it starts smelling like mold and stinky feet. Even if there’s no obvious reason for a timer to be set, assume there’s a good reason for it an ask. Especially make this assumption if your roommate mentions attention issues or says something like, “I love timers. They help me remember stuff.” Especially-especially make this assumption if your roommate explicitly says, “Please don’t shut off the kitchen timer if there’s nothing in the oven unless you need it, and if you have to, let me know. I use it to remember the laundry.”

    Alternatively, don’t complain when your sabotage of the timer system your roommate needs to remember stuff like this results in a laundry room that smells of mold and stinky feet. I guarantee your roommate is no more thrilled with having to re-do a perfectly good load of laundry than you are with old laundry funk in the laundry room.

  4. Great post. Really useful stuff here.

  5. Thanks, this was really helpful. I’ve been living with my autistic roommate for a year and, autism or not, this is good advice for any respectful rooming situation.


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