Sometime near the end of 2016, my best friend asked me something kind, accepting, freeing and wonderful: “Would it be easier for you to come to my parties if I made sure there was a quiet room?”
While she said parties, she meant gatherings of five to 10 people with food and conversation. She regularly invited me, despite my track record. Sometimes I outright declined the invitation, and sometimes I accepted, but then canceled at the last minute because I was panicking at the thought of being there. I’d never once made it to one of her parties.
Being an autistic adult can mean many things; for me, social occasions mean managing the sensory distress caused by noisy environments, a great deal of general social anxiety, and lots of people—as well as the most awful part of conversations: small talk. How much do you share when someone asks “How have you been?” I’m 39 years old, and I still don’t know.
I love this friend dearly and wanted to spend more time with her. But, going to one of her parties would be like belly-crawling through mud to avoid barbed wire for me—until she suggested having a quiet room.
What is a quiet room?
A quiet room is exactly what it sounds like: a space away from the gathering itself. In a perfect world, the party noise is muffled, and the space is visually uncluttered. Ultimately, it’s a space where someone can go and breathe and not need to talk to anyone for a few minutes.
Quiet rooms are becoming more popular at big conventions and similar events; when my kids and I went to Awesome Con in April, the location of the quiet room was clearly marked on the floor map. When we picked up our badges, they made sure we understood how to get to the space if we needed it.
We so often talk about autism in relation to kids that it’s easy to forget that autistic adults exist, too. We’re much less likely to be formally diagnosed, but this doesn’t mean we don’t struggle. We are more likely to have developed coping skills to try and manage things like sensory disorders and communication challenges, but are even more likely to have learned to try to hide it. The work of coping, which we’ll often call masking, is exhausting, something I’ve previously compared to being almost, but not quite, fluent in a foreign language. Having a moment to rest before resuming the work can make the overall experience much less painful.
Some families seem to have a natural instinct for quiet spaces during gatherings. My boyfriend described get togethers at his grandparents’ house like this: You went in the front door, and if you turned left, you’d be in a room full of people with multiple conversations happening simultaneously. But if you turned right, you’d head down into the basement. There was never more than one other person there at a time, and the only talking might be a quick “How’re you?” followed by “Fine.” After some five to 10 minutes, they’d head back up, and the next person would head down. Seamless and easy—and like going to my friend’s after she offered a quiet room, it was the only way his family could get together.
How do you set up a quiet room?
You don’t need to put an addition on your house to have a quiet space for your friends and family. Ultimately, it’s pretty simple. Here’s what you can do:
- Set aside a place within your home. Spare bedrooms, basements, and rec rooms that won’t be taken over by kids will all work. When all else fails, the bathroom no one uses is enough. Honestly, this is often where we end up if there’s nowhere else to escape to.
- If you have kids, raid their toy boxes for potential fidget items. Slinkies, glitter wands, puzzle toys, and fidget spinners and cubes are all fantastic options. Put these in a basket in the room, the same way you might leave a basket of tampons and pads visible in the bathroom.
- Consider leaving some snacks and bottles of water in there as well. Nothing fancy is needed; the kind of packaged snacks you’d toss in your kid’s lunch box and mini water bottles are fine.
- Let everyone know about the quiet room. When you invite people to the event, mention that a space will be available. When they arrive, let them know where it is. By telling everyone, you’re not singling anyone out. You never know who might need that space.
What does adding a quiet room really do?
At the time, I assumed that my friend had created this space in her home just to make it easier for me to attend. After all, I cried when she made the offer, feeling welcomed and loved. I could finally access a space I’d wanted to be in for a very long time. I finally got to go to the party.
Here’s what I didn’t know until recently: Everyone else present that particular night was able to attend because of the quiet room. Knowing that a space was available if we needed to withdraw, for as long as was needed, made it possible for many different people to attend who, just like me, had always needed to say ‘no’ to invitations before. According to my friend, setting up this quiet space at her events takes no real time at all.
But to those of us who need that space, it tells us that we deserve to be at gatherings and events, and more, deserve to enjoy them.