Written in September 2022
A “comfort zone” is a state in which someone feels in control and at ease with their surroundings. It is a behavioural state of low anxiety and low stress, a neutral place where familiarity with the environment or context does not pose a challenge to a comfortable existence. Being in one's comfort zone is vital for everyone, regardless of neurotype, for activities such as relaxation, relationship building and communication.
For autistic people being in our comfort zone is a non-negotiable requirement for these activities and virtually everything else. It is much harder for us to define and attain a comfort zone when environmental/external sensory factors, plus the demands placed on us by individuals and by wider society, mean that our comfort zones are our homes or another familiar and controllable environment. The phrase “comfort zone”, in this context, means a physical space rather than a psychological state, because that psychological state can only be attained if the environment allows it.
There are many autistic people who don't really have a comfort zone in this sense of the word due to living with family or friends who may not be accommodating (for various reasons) and it is important that autistic people do have a space where they can switch off and not be disturbed – a place they can create a comfort zone in. Many of us compromise by using earphones or earplugs, wearing sunglasses or hats indoors, wearing particular clothing for a physical sensation or temperature regulation, or by stimming to help regulate an unpredictable environment.
I think it is important for people to understand that when autistic people are not in their physical comfort zones they are most definitely out of their psychological sense of a comfort zone. It is not always obvious to people that we are far away from our comfort zones, because this sums up our entire existence – when people interact with us we, by definition, are outside our comfort zones and we have to push ourselves every day to do this. Most people don't have to step outside their comfort zones on a daily basis, and would find it mentally exhausting to have to do so (and it is mentally exhausting – this is one of the major contributing factors to shutdowns, meltdowns and poor mental wellbeing).
Now that we have defined comfort zones, and we know that autistic people exist outside our comfort zones for the majority of our existence outside our homes (and in many cases inside those homes) I want to introduce the idea of a coping zone.
A coping zone is the next ring outside the comfort zone (if we imagine ourselves in the centre, with a circle of comfort zone around us, and outside that, a circle of coping zone). The coping zone is our tolerance for outside stimuli and demands and could be recognisable to neurotypical and non-autistic people as their comfort zone.
The coping zone represents the space in which we can push ourselves to new experiences and to try things we are anxious about. We know (generally) where the limit of our coping zone is and what will push us over the boundary into crisis territory, where shutdowns and meltdowns occur. As is the case for neurotypical people stepping outside their comfort zone in order to try new things or face a fear, stepping into our coping zones is how we do this, but we need to stay within those limits. Neurotypical people may indeed benefit and grow by stepping outside their comfort zones from time to time, but they're not also exceeding the limits of their coping zone.
I went to an improv class recently, and had a great time because my coping zone limits were respected. My comfort zone (when I am in a good place) allows for standing in front of people and talking, thinking on my feet and generally risking looking a bit silly, so in that sense a lot of the content of the class was well within my comfort zone. This sort of stuff is also well within my coping zone (when I am not in such a great place) so this aspect of the class did not faze me.
The activities that were at the limits of my coping zone were the ones in which we had to remember a list of actions which were added to sequentially, and which involved physical activity and co-ordination. One of the instructions was to swap places with the others by everyone running around across the circle, which is very very far outside my coping zone due to co-ordination problems (proprioceptive – dyspraxia). I felt physically unable to move, as if doing so was a threat to my safety and my feet would not let me move at all.
I was excused from having to swap places which meant I could remain in my coping zone, but for this exercise and a couple of others which involved quick physical reflexes I was right on the edge of it and a couple of times I felt I might have to leave. Thankfully that did not happen and I was able to remain in my coping and comfort zones, but I was exhausted by the end of it (in a good way). I intend to go back, because it provided a lot of fun and the chance to push myself into my coping zone in a safe environment and where I am in control of how much I push.
Autistic people are pushed outside our comfort zones on a daily basis, but we have to be very careful about pushing ourselves outside our coping zones. Testing these limits isn't going to allow us to do more – it won't change the boundaries of our coping zones. The limits are not made of fears that can be addressed through exposure therapy, nor of irrational thoughts that can be addressed using CBT techniques. Our coping zone limits are the extent of our sanity and of sustainable existence. Next time you think an autistic person needs to “step outside their comfort zone”, please remember that they likely already are.