Help me let him down gently...
October 17, 2017 5:01 PM   Subscribe

An adult with autism recently befriended my kids at the swimming pool in our apartment complex. Now he wants to hang out all day, every day. I am extroverted, but my "alone" time is very important to me so I am going nuts.

I moved into a new apartment at the beginning of August and one of the best amenities is a swimming pool. I have my five kids on the weekends, and, while it was still summer, I took them swimming at least once per day that they were with me.

At the beginning of September a man got into the pool wearing underwear instead of a swimsuit and started talking to me. He is in his mid-20's, but said he has autism so he is intellectually around 10 or 11. I will refer to him as Steve. My 14-year-old son enjoyed playing in the pool with Steve and invited him over to play video games, which was fine with me. But ever since that day, Steve wants to hang out non-stop.

My first red flag was one Saturday when I was using the restroom. Someone knocked on the restroom door and, since I had told my kids it is impolite to bother people while they are going poop, I yelled through the door "Go away. I'll talk to you when I get out." I was surprised to hear "Oh, it's just Steve. Okay." in response. My five-year-old had let him in. After he left that day I had a talk with my kids and told them they are not allowed to open the front door for any person without my permission.

The biggest red flag, however, was when I had stayed home sick from work one weekday, but went to the store around 8:00 p.m. to buy some soup. Steve knows I don't have my kids on weekdays, but when I got home around 9:00 a neighbor came up to my car. He said there was an odd-looking man who seemed "out of it" hanging out in my parking spot and he was concerned, but the man had left. I went inside and a few minutes later Steve knocked on my door. Apparently he wanted to hang out that evening, and when he saw my car was gone (I don't know how he knew which car is mine), he sat in my parking spot waiting for me to get back. He said he sat there for 20 minutes and when I still wasn't back he went and sat on the apartment stairs for another 40 minutes. He asked if he could come in, but I told him I was sick and was going to eat my soup and go to bed. "Can we just hang out for a little bit?" he asked. I told him no, and I gave him my phone number and said "In the future, call or text to see if I am available to hang out. Don't just come over."

That was three weeks ago and he has knocked on my door unannounced at least once almost every day since.

I don't have a problem with Steve, per se. I don't believe he is dangerous or anything. But every time I tell him I can't hang out I feel bad, like I have kicked a puppy. And I feel like a jerk when he knocks and I just ignore him.

How can I definitively-yet-gently disentangle this grown man from my life and from my kids' lives? He feels like a house guest that won't leave. If you have experience with autistic adults, your advice would be appreciated. I want to reiterate that I have no intention of hurting his feelings, but a boundary of some kind needs to be implemented. I have recently stayed away from home in the evenings (going shopping, going to a movie, etc.) just so I don't have to interact with him. And that sucks.
posted by tacodave to Human Relations (13 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
What is Steve's living situation? Someone who is intellectually around 10 or 11 is unlikely to be completely independent -- whoever is assisting him, whether it's a nearby relative, a social worker, or someone along those lines, would be an appropriate resource to loop in. Someone who knows him better and may have seen this dynamic play out before in the past could be really valuable in breaking the news or helping to set appropriate boundaries.
posted by telegraph at 5:21 PM on October 17, 2017 [35 favorites]

Yep, was just going to suggest finding out who his caretaker is. If he has the mental capacity of a 10 year old absolutely would need almost a full time caretaker.

Also if you can establish a routine of some sort that might help, so instead of saying "no" you're saying "hey you can come over on Wednesday nights from 6 - 8 to play video games".
posted by natteringnabob at 5:30 PM on October 17, 2017 [14 favorites]

It is possible that, as telegraph says, Steve may not be living independently, and the reason Steve has not called you or texted you in advance of his visits is because he is not allowed to have a phone. If he has the intellectual capacity of a 10 or 11 year old, you can ask him why he has not called you to make plans since you told him he needed to do that. If he tells you he doesn't have a phone, you can ask him to introduce you to the other adults in his life that do, and go from there. You might have to follow him home to his apartment.

If this is a continued problem and you don't have a way to coordinate with a caregiver or Steve is resistant to introducing you or admitting he has one, you can contact your landlord with this concern. It's unlikely that Steve is a leaseholder, but the landlord will know who is (though they may not share that info with you). That way, at least the message won't be coming from you.
posted by juniperesque at 5:31 PM on October 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

Figure out boundaries and set them firmly? Maybe tell him, "You can spend time with us and the kids, but only once per month, and I'll call you to decide the day. If you keep coming to the door, it uses up my free time and we won't have time to spend with you. Please don't knock on the door unless there is an emergency like a fire or if someone's hurt."

And maybe: "Since I'm tired in the evenings and very busy, could you please just wave 'hi' without coming over, and I'll try to wave back if I can? Don't come talk to me, just wave quietly. That way we can be polite to each other without using up my energy."

Note: I am not an expert on autism, but I think setting boundaries is kinder to him and you.
posted by amtho at 5:43 PM on October 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

I have experience with autistic people! Setting clear boundaries has been generally well-accepted. My autistic loved ones don't tend to be defensive or get hurt feelings when you say, "I need some alone time now," or, "I'm glad you visited but it's time to go home now." In addition, offering a social script--as amtho describes--can be really useful, and, again, my autistic loved ones, tend to be appreciative of this kind of thing. From your description, your neighbor Steve took it really well when you told him to go away while you were in the bathroom.

We've also had experience with neighborhood kids who were under-supervised deciding to move in. Again, here, it's a kindness to everyone to set boundaries. We had a neighbor kid who often didn't go to school--he was 8 or 9 and his mother would go off to work, leaving him. He'd come looking for us because he'd get bored at home waiting for his teenage brother to wake up. One of the rules I set was that he couldn't visit during the school day if school was in session. Another was that he could use my kids' spare bike but only if they were with him, and only if he put it away properly. And we had to set boundaries around how many dinners we were willing to feed him.

It's weirdly hard to do this kind of thing, so you have my sympathy. But in all such cases it is best to set clear and explicit boundaries.
posted by Orlop at 5:54 PM on October 17, 2017 [10 favorites]

Yeah. He's just lonely. If you want to see him once a week, you get to lay down the ground rules. If you want to see him once a month, you get to lay down the ground rules. But it is absolutely on you to lay down the ground rules. He will almost certainly accept them.
posted by Mr. Justice at 6:07 PM on October 17, 2017

My older brother is 39 but operates on a level, socially, that is just now hitting the 15/16 year old mark. He has grown to understand boundaries more as he has gotten older and learned that there are different cues that he might be missing that he needs interpreted or described instead of people assuming he understands what's going on. He could possibly live on his own but he lives with me and will for the foreseeable future - partly because of situations like yours that have caused him confusion or embarrassment or anger in the past.

It hurts me for Steve and you that you dread him stopping by and avoid him but I completely understand it. I would say that using the most basic language is best, overexplaining usually just leads to extra confusion and may end up with his misunderstanding or forgetting the boundaries you set and just showing up anyway even if he promises he won't. For example, my brother doesn't have a cell phone but we have implemented ways for him to message his friends on Facebook before stopping by, even if he's sure that they said one time that he could visit "any time" but they've drawn boundaries since then that are more specific. It will make things so much better for everyone when the lines are set, I swear it.
posted by Merinda at 6:54 PM on October 17, 2017 [8 favorites]

I have an autistic 5 year old so no experience with an adult. But my instinct is that the more specific the better, in terms of boundaries. Like "stop by Sundays at 3" or the first Sunday of every month or whatever.
posted by JenMarie at 7:46 PM on October 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

Both "I'm not feeling well and I want to go to sleep" and "Please call/text me to find out if this is a good time" are clear messages. Nthing finding out who his caregiver is.
posted by brujita at 8:36 PM on October 17, 2017

In my earlier teaching life, I spent a lot of time teaching social skills to kids on the spectrum. It's good for you to realize that this is a great learning experience for Steve and you're only doing him a kindness to help him learn.

What I would do is literally set a playdate time with Steve on a calendar, his phone, whatever he says he uses to remember things. Find out if there's a caregiver and ask if this works for them.

But the visual that he can reference is important because then it's something he owns. Maybe you could help him or his caregiver work on creating his calendar so he can put in library time, exercise time, work, etc., and he can get that visual of how his day is filled.

Don't overexplain or apologize or anything, just make it, "Video games with tacodave on Sunday 1-3," and really reinforce your happy about that time and will see him then.

If he has other moments where he still wants to hang out, you just need to say, "We have our videos on Sunday. Remember the calendar? See you then!" and go about your business. He won't feel you're blowing him off or anything.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 3:08 AM on October 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

Hi. I have a bunch of autistic friends and am almost certainly, according to my psychiatrist, on the spectrum myself. I wouldn't assume that Steve isn't living independently. It's probably not all that helpful to think of him as being somehow equivalent to an 11 year old - developmental disabilities don't really work that way, different skills can be apparent at different times, and talking like this about someone who is in actuality an adult is not accurate or respectful. He may be living with relatives or caregivers but may also not. Figuring out unspoken social rules is sometimes a lot harder than most other things involved with independent living. And either way, he's a person - it won't help him or your friendship if you go over his head and infantilise him. Honestly there's no better way to handle this than explicitly and clearly telling him what your boundaries are and letting him know when he's crossing them. This will probably be frustrating for both of you, and I'm sorry about that. But I don't imagine it will be the only frustrating human interaction either of you have had.
posted by Acheman at 5:14 AM on October 18, 2017 [8 favorites]

I think your best bet is to set aside a clear time of the week to "hang out" with him. He sounds like a sweet guy who just doesn't understand. This would drive me crazy too though! A lot of people with autism can be really black and white so they respond really well to clear cut rules and routines. Say you set aside 2 hours every week to hang out with him. Tell him that you are busy the rest of the week but you can do [some activity] at [time]. Then enforce it as much as possible. When time is up, he leaves. This needs to be an EXTREMELY clear boundary that is strictly enforced.

This is all assuming you're willing and able to do this, however. If you are willing and comfortable a couple hours on the weekend could benefit both him and your kids. It's good for kids to learn about different kinds of behavior and meet different kinds of people. If you're not willing, however, I think you need to involve the caretaker. You should also involve the caretaker if he's not respecting the boundary you set. You may just want to tell the caretaker in general. It's hard to know how receptive they'll be, but I'd hope they could use this information to do something that would benefit him. Maybe get him involved in another social event, or just discuss boundaries with neighbors.

Good luck! I hope this works out for the best.
posted by Amy93 at 6:34 PM on October 22, 2017

An update: Steve came by yesterday evening and said that he "used up too many chances" so he was being forced to move out of our apartment complex. He said he will miss us and will be moving a couple of hours away.

I have no idea what he meant by using too many chances, but I would assume he bothered other residents and the management was fed up.

Problem solved, I guess...?
posted by tacodave at 3:41 PM on October 30, 2017

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