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When I Need to Leave My Comfort Zone as an Autistic Person

It’s surprising how many people know and love C. S. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia” but who are unfamiliar with his other books. Perhaps it’s the assertive faith of his less-read works. Perhaps they seem dated.

The narrator in my favorite Lewis book, “The Great Divorce,” lives in a “grey” town. A bus regularly travels from this town to the foothills of heaven. Anyone can get on the bus. Once they arrive, the ghostly passengers learn they will become more solid and happier as they journey further toward the mountains. They’re all welcome to stay in heaven. None do, preferring the familiarity of “grey” town to the uncertain promise of something different, something better. They all get back on the bus and return home.

This allegory about the prisons we construct for ourselves has stayed with me since I first read the book almost 50 years ago. Not because I believe in Lewis’ concept of heaven and hell, but because I know from my own life how easy it is to build a safe, predictable, unthreatening prison out of fear.

Like many autistics, I have a long list of things that make me uncomfortable. Chewing, tapping, rhythmical sounds. More than one person speaking at a time. Social situations. Crowds. Anything loud. Hands or objects near my head. I could fill a book with the mundane things that make me feel my head is going to burst. And then there are the parts of my being me that I feel embarrassed by…the misplaced keys, the forgotten grocery store items, the lost car in a parking lot, the sense of unfamiliarity when I drive places I’ve been to many times before.

My need to avoid these things can be overwhelming. Stay home, stick with my routine, construct a safe, quiet, emotionally neutral space and then lock the door from the inside. This is my default setting.

Fortunately, my wife makes a habit of dragging me out of my comfort zone, forcing me to do the things I most try to avoid. She refuses to concede the fact that “difficult” in any way means “impossible.” Quite the opposite. She schedules movies, dinner dates with neighbors and political get-togethers, insisting I not only show up but participate.

When did my expectations of myself get set so low? Why did I let my autism become an excuse for not trying, for not pushing myself? The answer is pretty obvious to me. I long ago chose habit, familiarity and safety in place of putting in the tough work needed to have a fuller, more rewarding existence for myself. I became fearful and stopped showing up for my life.

Every week now I go to our local Kiwanis meeting, where I volunteer to help, take on projects and literally force myself to sit at tables with other people. After-church coffee hour may seem like small potatoes to you, but it’s mountain climbing for me. Keeping an adult support group up and running is…well, emotionally bracing seems as good a description as any. My wife doesn’t make me do these things. I do, and am better for it.

Which brings me back to Lewis’ bus. However I choose to define being different, it can, if I’m not careful, become like a room I’m afraid to leave instead of what drives my journey toward something better. I believe it’s up to me.

All of us make choices…big and small…about how we choose to live our lives. Are we going to build a small room in a little house out of our fears, anxieties or, worse, other people’s opinions, and then hide inside…or are we going to start dismantling these emotional hiding places brick by brick and begin our journey?

I absolutely hate this process. It’s exhausting and beyond uncomfortable. It’s also the thing that gets me up in the morning and keeps me moving forward. I’m not stronger and most definitely not more resilient these days. I am, however, more determined.

It has taken me a while to realize that the scenery begins changing as soon as the bus leaves town. Life has a way of getting better as I go along, even if it can seem slow and painful at times. There’s more joy to be found in the journey and less reason to fret about the destination than I ever expected.

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Thinkstock image by Vladdeep