Homelessness Hits Extra Hard for People with Sensory Sensitivities
Being autistic can come with a range of different, sometimes even opposite, traits. But one thing most autistic people can relate to is sensory sensitivities stemming from their environment.
For many housed autistic people, these sensitivities necessitate various accommodations to make their homes more suited to their needs and preferences. These accommodations could be anything from setting the thermostat to a comfortable temperature, lighting a nice-smelling candle, and keeping a quiet room to retreat to as needed.
Unfortunately, unhoused autistic people don’t have the luxury of tailoring their environment to their needs. This can lead to dysregulation, meltdowns, and autistic burnout – especially when coupled with all of the other stressors of homelessness.
No Quiet Places
A common sensory sensitivity in autistic people is an aversion to loud noise. This can be difficult to avoid when you’re unhoused because you’re often in public spaces where blaring music, noisy neighbors, traffic sounds, children playing, and the various beeps and boops of cash registers are nearly inescapable.
Even public libraries are not guaranteed to have quiet spaces available. And even if they did, they may or may not be welcoming to someone who appears homeless.
Lack of Reliable Schedules
Another technique many autistic people use is to build a lot of structure into each day by forming a reliable schedule.
Of course, this is often inaccessible to unhoused people because most events in their lives happen outside their direct control. They may plan to spend a few hours at the library before catching the bus to work. But if they get kicked out of the library, or the bus is running late, the plan for the entire day quickly goes off the rails.
Having a car can take away some sources of uncertainty. However, many more unexpected events can occur in the life of the average unhoused person compared to the average housed person. Not knowing where or if you can get a bed for the night can set you on edge for the entire day, and that’s an effect that only builds over time.
Constant Masking Takes Its Toll
Being in the public eye all day and potentially all night means wearing a mask 24/7 for many autistic people.
“Masking” is the term autistic people use to describe the process of “blending in” with the allistic (non-autistic) people around them and essentially disguising the fact that they’re autistic. Think about all the facial expressions, body language, and small talk you make in a typical day. It happens practically on autopilot, right? For autistic people masking essentially means making each and every one of those decisions manually.
This is an extremely exhausting process, but it’s also necessary for many autistic people to avoid judgment and mistreatment. This is especially true for autistic people who are homeless, Black autistic people, other autistic people of color, and the people who exist at any number of those intersections.
Stimming While Homeless is Risky
Part of masking also includes suppressing self-stimulatory behaviors, which are simply repetitive behaviors or movements that autistic people use to express joy, calm down, or regulate the nervous system. Examples include things like hand flapping, rocking, playing with fidget toys, humming, jumping, spinning, repeating words, and many, many more.
They’re simple things that don’t hurt anyone, but we all know that something as simple as talking to yourself out loud can seem like “suspicious behavior” when a homeless person does it. Because of this, it’s common for unhoused autistic people to suppress their urge to stim so as not to draw unwanted attention to themselves. That also means that the stress and anxiety that would be released through stimming instead builds up over time.
Increased Interaction with Police
Both unhoused people and autistic people are more vulnerable to police than the average person. Add in being Black, Indigenous, or another person of color, and that vulnerability goes up again.
Police interactions are a high-stress, high-risk environment that can send autistic people into meltdown pretty quickly. When this happens, police officers who aren’t informed about autism or simply don’t care to analyze the situation that deeply can become hostile and violent. Needless to say, this leads to poor outcomes for the unhoused autistic person on the other end of this interaction.
This increased vulnerability makes it even more critical to avoid police interaction at all costs. Unfortunately, we know that that’s difficult for an unhoused person. Being autistic can even contribute to more police interactions if people perceive you as “weird” and decide to call the cops “just in case.”
‘Beggars Can’t Be Choosers’
Homeless Loki writes about her experience living with autism and being homeless. In one post, she explains how being placed into housing in a crowded, noisy building where smoke from neighboring units suffuses her apartment with its scent affected her sensory sensitivities. Even in housing, she couldn’t escape environmental triggers or receive adequate accommodations to live in comfort and safety.
Because of the all-too-pervasive idea that beggars can’t be choosers, she received little to no compassion for her situation and certainly no option to refuse the inadequate housing for an option that accommodated her disability. She was expected to be grateful for what little she got, not because it was a suitable solution but simply because others in line behind her were getting even less.
The World Wasn’t Built for Autistic People or Unhoused People
Being homeless as an autistic person adds an extra layer of complexity to a situation that’s already far too complex and inhumane for anyone to be expected to endure. And to add insult to injury, autistic people may be at an increased risk of homelessness since more than half of autistic adults are under or unemployed. This leaves many reliant on aging caregivers or government programs- a precarious place to be.