Lone Wolfing: The Joys of Autistic Solitude by Betsy Selvam

*This piece first appeared the website of the Stimpunks Foundation. Stimpunks is a nonprofit built by and for neurodivergent and disabled people and offering mutual support and human-centred learning.

Being solitary is being alone well: being alone luxuriously immersed in doings of your own choice, aware of the fullness of your own presence rather than of the absence of others. Because solitude is an achievement.

Alice Koller

It is commonly held that autistic people are lonelier than non-autistic people. This is believed to be the result of life-long social rejection, social isolation and alienation that they face in society, even among family and friends. To be honest, this assumption is somewhat evident from the word “autism” itself. Let’s take a quick look at its etymology. The term autism –coined by Eugen Bleuler in 1911– is derived from the Greek word ‘autos’ that means ‘self’. This is paired with the suffix ‘ism’ that means ‘a condition characterised by an excess’ of something. Author Mitzi Waltz, in her book Autism: A Social and Medial History, notes that autism was initially believed to be “a deliberate turning away from the rest of the world” and “an excess of self-absorption”. 

Numerous studies reveal that the rate of loneliness among autistic people is much higher than among neurotypical people. The social construction of autism is one that largely paints autistic people as lonely and isolated individuals, unable to connect and trapped within their bodyminds. Here, I do not speak for all autistic people. It may be true that autistic people often feel lonely. But this is not because we feel trapped due to our autism. In fact, alone time is a crucial need for the wellbeing of autistic people. Being in one’s own company is not lonely. What is lonely is existing in a world that tries little to understand you.

Solitude is stigmatised and undervalued in today’s hyper-connected world. Aloneness is a disadvantage, and isolation is detrimental to self and society. 

But is this always true?

It’s important to see the other side of this coin and explore the joys of autistic solitude.

In this space, I want to highlight the positives of solitude from an autistic perspective. I am largely using my own lived experience as an autistic person to support my argument and what others before me have said about this subject. 

For me, the experience of being alone – or rather with myself – is rich and invaluable. 

Growing up, I attributed my preference to be alone to my status as an only child. I turned to books, television and pretend play to pass the time and engage myself. In make-believe games, I played all the roles, or better yet, invented new games and roles for myself. I climbed walls and trees and indulged in long, rambling conversations with myself. 

I found that this was much more enjoyable and rewarding than playing with school friends or kids from my neighbourhood. In the company of my peers, I observed dynamics which I simply could not understand. 

At different times, I arrived at different conclusions about why I cherished solitude more than company. These realisations were mostly in relation to other people and past incidents: 

1. Introversion: I rely on solitude to recharge and rejuvenate myself. 

2. Self-reliance in the past: I survived a difficult childhood, relying heavily on my own abilities to get past family dysfunction, school trauma and unreliable friendships. 

3. Highly Sensitive Personhood: I am easily overwhelmed, and solitude relieves me. I don’t have to comply with anyone else’s rules or make compromises when I am by myself.

While all the above statements are true and hold water, receiving my Asperger’s Syndrome (or Autism Spectrum Disorder) diagnosis at 16 was the biggest revelation that forced me to re-evaluate my entire life and reflect about my understanding of solitude from a whole new standpoint. 

Solitude as Strength

Sara Maitland, in her book How to be Alone, draws upon prior research regarding the direct relationship between solitude and wellbeing. She observes that the benefits of solitude may be roughly categorized as:

 “1. A deeper consciousness of oneself

  2. A deeper attunement to nature

  3. A deeper relationship with the Divine

  4. Increased creativity

  5. An increased sense of freedom”

I am inclined to agree with her. Additionally, I think an autistic person is likely to feel these aspects with more nuance and depth. This is why alone time is so essential and healing. 

I believe that my autism has a deep effect on my capacity to be alone. By this, I mean that, perhaps, it is due to my autistic traits that I am drawn to solitude for longer stretches of time and with more frequency than others. Not everyone likes to be alone, or can be alone for very long. This is equally true for individuals on the autism spectrum. Simply because I enjoy alone time does not mean other autistic people feel the same way too. Wanting to be alone is not an innate characteristic of being autistic. But the state of aloneness affords autistic people the space and time to be ourselves which the outer world does not always welcome. That is why it is freeing, joyful and not lonely. 

Brent Crane, in The Virtues of Isolation, notes, “The difference between solitude as rejuvenation and solitude as suffering is the quality of self-reflection that one can generate while in it, and the ability to come back to social groups when one wants to”. The state of aloneness is a self-enriching experience for me. Not only is there self-discovery and a sense of self-gathering during alone time, but afterwards I am also able to return to social interaction willingly and enjoy the company of others. As opposed to forcing this process that leaves me frayed and fatigued.

Safe Space 

When I am alone, I do not have to mask or camouflage in order to appear any way that is socially acceptable. I find the space of aloneness kind and consoling–like a parent’s hand stroking your back. I am free to use my energy to do what I want without wasting a bulk of it on the performance of looking normal. The silence that often accompanies solitude helps me to regulate my thoughts and emotions well, protecting me from sensory overwhelm and overload. Almost always, in the company of others – even my favourite people – I am burdened by the incessant thought that I must make them feel comfortable with me. Sometimes, this is at the expense of my comfort. So, I often sacrifice my own needs or desires to accommodate other people.  

But I feel winged and weightless when I am on my own. I have more energy; I am able to accomplish more things and be unabashedly myself. Silence and darkness are the best companions to solitude, and I cherish the presence of all three together. I often find myself refreshed and awake when the house sleeps at night.  

Recovery and Rejuvenation

As a child, I remember yearning to play with other children. I often stood by the playground, watching others playing in groups and frolicking. It seemed like everyone else had settled into their own cliques and groups. If not groups, then they had at least found a partner with whom they were usually with, as if chained or glued to each other. I observed that I did not have either. It was a painful feeling that took me a long time to outgrow. 

In elementary school, I took walks by myself during recess and lunchtime. I’d go treasure-hunting, finding interesting things on the ground that no one else noticed. Although I had friends, I had a keen sense of being an outsider, a nomad who floated from one group to the next without any anchor. Between the 3rd and 5th grades, all the classroom politics left me devastated. I found that I was often left uninvited to parties, and that I was frequently out-of-the-loop in regards to group secrets. 

In the 5th grade, I finally got a single desk that was located at the back of the classroom, next to the window. It was peaceful, and one of the few times I enjoyed going to school. Seated there, I felt distant from the rest of the class and welcomed that feeling. I stayed within an invisible bubble that I furnished with things from my world and nothing else.

The Art of Lone Wolfing 

I find a reassuring sense of companionship with myself in solitude. This may sound ironic, but it is true. Although I may now have a much better grasp of socialization, with a sizable repertoire of social skills, I still need to return to solitude in order to return to myself. This is not to say that I don’t relish spending time with people in social situations. I do. But solitude remains the sanctuary I seek out after all the flash of rubbing shoulders. 

As I read more about the lives of autistic individuals from around the world, I notice that this a common theme across several narratives. Many autistic individuals seem to be inveterate lone wolves. For instance, autistic author Cynthia Kim remarks, “The times in my life that I’ve experienced this type of aloneness–the lonely, companionless isolation–I’ve nearly always been surrounded by people.” Sarah Hendrickx, using insightful comments from actual autistic women, illustrates how liberating and empowering aloneness can be for autistic women in her book Women and Girls with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Understanding Life Experiences from Early Childhood to Old Age. “I’m happiest when I don’t have to leave the house or see anyone,” says one participant. Another observes, “How peaceful it is to withdraw from the complicated world of human relationships!”

As we grow older, there is a need to stop and take stock of our lives. Many autistic people develop remarkable self-awareness and self-acceptance over time. This gives us the chance to stop, decide what is best for ourselves, and discard the rest. We frequently come to discover that many things foisted upon us during childhood, like having to “fit in,” are actually not that important. It is therapeutic to discover the superficiality of most societal expectations. We come to learn that our own way of doing things works the best for us; that our own path leads us the right way.

The fulfilment that many autistics find in solitude—the art of lone wolfing—is a great reminder of the immense restorative potential of solitude in a world that constantly demands change and reinvention. 

Note: This piece uses identity-first language instead of person-first.

Header image: “Lone Wolfing: The Joys of Autistic Solitude” by Betsy Selvam is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0

Betsy Selvam works with Stimpunks Foundation as a writer and artist.

If you enjoyed this, then you might also enjoy our piece on The Seven Greatest Freedoms of Living Alone.

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