To be fair, I didn’t know I was autistic in my 20s and had lots of roommates.
However, I had all of the classic autistic behaviors when it came to my living space. I liked my items kept just so. I had an organization system that made sense to me. I only wanted to spend money on the things that I liked. I had a routine that felt comfortable to me. I wanted to be alone and accomplish tasks in my space.
In essence, I had MY way of doing things and I wanted them done that way - period. When I lived with roommates, this created many problems.
When they wanted to buy a couch for us to use in the living room, I refused because I knew I would never hang out in the living room so I didn’t see the point in buying a couch.
I would get annoyed when one of my roommates would unexpectedly alter when they showered, throwing off my routine.
I wanted to know if people were coming over and how long they would stay.
I certainly didn’t want to contribute money towards parties and group dinners because I didn’t want to be a part of those things.
I would get annoyed if certain chemical cleaners were used in the house because they would give me headaches.
They would invite me to go out with them, and I typically refused. I was frequently referred to as their hermit roommate.
They wanted to split bills, but I didn’t find that fair when I didn’t watch TV (back when we paid for cable).
The list could go on and on. My behaviors and choices all make sense now that I know I’m autistic. Our homes are our sanctuaries (I wrote an entire essay about it called The Power of the Home Environment for an Autistic). It is the one place we can control what comes in and what goes in. We can design it just so and enjoy it just as we like.
When we have to share our sanctuaries with others, what we want can grate against what others want.
Unless we are absolutely clear about what we need and why, this can make living with a roommate absolute hell. Even if we are clear about our needs, our roommates also have their own volition. They might not want what we want and we have to learn to compromise.
As I’m writing this, I am sitting out on my porch. I came out here to enjoy the peace and quiet of the morning. My downstairs neighbor who lives on the ground floor just woke up and decided to put on music while she gardens directly below me. My quiet, peaceful morning is disrupted.
This experience exactly mirrors how I would feel many times with roommates. I would feel annoyed because they were doing something that disrupted me. However, they were unaware of my autistic needs, so they didn’t even have a chance to anticipate what would support or bother me.
My downstairs neighbor has no idea that I’m autistic. She’s a lovely woman and I’m sure that if I explained, she would listen to her music in her headphones. I think she is someone who would absolutely be willing to find a compromise. Next time I see her I might do that.
Why don’t I just ask her right now? Because my sensory system is overloaded. I became immediately upset by this disruption. I know that if I discuss it with her now, I will come off far more rude and extreme than I want to. Furthermore, when my nervous system is overloaded, I typically do not communicate clearly. It’s like I don’t have full access to the logical reasoning and verbal communication side of my brain.
This was the other thing that happened with my roommates. I would address the things in the moment that bothered me, and end up saying things in far more terse, irritated ways.
I didn’t understand myself well enough to know I needed some time to calm down first.
This is another reason I was an incredibly difficult roommate. Not only did I have unvoiced needs, when I did try to express them, I expressed them with unclear language and in an upset tone. I know I must have been a pretty difficult roommate.
We autistics can be pretty hard on ourselves. So you may be wondering if I might be judging my past self too harshly. I think in this case, I’m being very accurate. There were many “roommate” meetings called, and no one ever continued as my roommate the following year. It’s pretty clear there was a lot of conflict and hurt feelings on all sides.
I have no intention of living with a roommate now, but if I were to, I would do things far differently. Now that I know I’m autistic, I would be upfront about my autistic needs. I would also want to know their needs so I could adjust myself accordingly. I would also meet with roommates prior to agreeing to live with them to make sure our needs and ability to communicate and compromise could be lined up.
I’m not saying it would be easy, but I think it would be a far different experience than the difficult roommate I was.