Finding Spaces That Feel Like Home

Where do you feel safe and understood?
Hands wrapped around a warm mug of coffee

Lately I’ve been feeling… displaced.

Through a series of seemingly never-ending events, I’ve been away from home more often than I’ve been in it over the past few months. And I’m tired. Tired of all the moving around, seeing unfamiliar things, not knowing where anything is kept and not sleeping in my own bed. Never getting a chance to put down roots, to get established, to feel comfortable and just be before the next change comes. It’s exhausting. And yet it’s also oddly familiar, and I’ve only just now figured out why.

It’s what I do every day.

This is what it feels like to be out of sync with most of the people around you, to have a body that works differently to the one around which the world was designed. To constantly be required to move out of your comfort zone and stay there for long periods of time. To not have regular access to the safe havens that allow you to rest and recharge.

To always be away from home.

What do I mean by home? Home is where you can let down your guard, and relax amongst the familiar and predictable. A place to feel safe and understood, surrounded by the things you choose to enjoy. Somewhere that is protected from the outside and safe from unwanted intrusions.

Home is where you can be yourself.

Some people find home in the place where they live. For others, home might be inside a video game or online community. It might be a corner of the library surrounded by favourite books or in the arms of someone who loves you unconditionally. Or maybe it’s being immersed in a special interest or watching the same episode of a TV show over and over.

Some people have many places that feel like home, others might never find any.

But regardless of what home looks like, we all feel the same way when we’re there – relaxed, safe, comfortable, familiar. Moving away from that place instantly requires us to become more alert, to pay attention to our surroundings so we can process new information and identify potential threats. And dealing with this level of demand for a prolonged period of time can be really, really exhausting.

To get an idea of just how tiring that is, think about a situation in which everything was unfamiliar to you – traveling in another country, the first day at a new job or starting university. A time when you needed to be mentally alert for long periods of time, without a safe comfortable space in which to relax for a few moments amidst a constant barrage of new and unfamiliar. Remember how overwhelmed you felt at the end of the day? You probably needed time at home to recover and recuperate.

But what if you never got that time? What if you were told that you couldn’t go home, or that home was an unacceptable place to be? What if the displacement was constant, if that first-day-at-a-new-job feeling was every day at your job?

You’d be tired. You might demand a time-out, or try and find a safe spot somewhere. You’d probably cling on to the things that you’ve brought from home, your lifeline to a place where everything is familiar and makes sense to you. Or you might try to make the new place feel more like home, by following the same routines or eating familiar foods or speaking in your most fluent language.

The less opportunities you have to retreat to the safety and comfort of home, the more time you spend experiencing the stress of displacement.

For many people with autism or sensory processing disorders this stress is constant, from regularly being in scary, confusing, threatening and unfamiliar spaces without the chance to recover from the stress that can bring. Echolalia, stimming and clinging to routines are all very reasonable responses to the constant need to be away from ‘home’.

There are also fewer places that feel like home, where you’re free to be yourself and completely relax, when the world around you isn’t built for the way your body works. And in that situation trying to make your own home-like spaces is often met with disapproval, judgement and resistance.

You know that feeling when you walk in the door at the end of that day and slip into your favourite pair of sweatpants or pajamas, the pair that’s soft and forgiving and moulded to fit only you? That’s how it feels for me when I enter a space where I’m free to stim, where it’s totally quiet and I don’t have to talk to anyone or make eye contact. That feels like home to me, a comfy place where I can recover from the stress of being ‘outside’.

Knowing that I have a space like that to ‘go home to’ makes it much easier for me to tolerate being in uncomfortable or unfamiliar places.

It’s also helpful to know in advance if I need to be away from home, and how long it will be before I return, so I can prepare myself and make sure that I take enough of the things I need to help me cope. And naturally the longer I’m away from home, the more desperately I want to get back there.

Because there’s no place like it.

Things to think about:

  • What does home look and feel like for you or your kids?
  • Do you all get to spend enough time there?
  • Do you give them advance warning when they need to be away?
  • Are they allowed to bring a piece of home with them when they leave?
  • What things help you all cope with being away from the comforts of home?
  • Is there stuff you can do to make new, scary or uncomfortable places feel more like home?

Last updated 10 Jun, 2017 by Bec Oakley

Bec Oakley is an autistic writer and proud parent, with an intense passion for 80s text adventures, Twizzlers and making the world a better place for autistic people and their families.