Why Humans need Solitude

Two years ago, my husband and I attended a conference put on by the New Horizons Center for Autism and Asperger’s Studies to see Dr. Tony Attwood speak. Dr. Attwood is an Austrailian psychiatrist widely recognized as the foremost authority on Asperger’s Sydrome and High Functioning Autism (HFA). The most dramatic moment in Dr. Attwood’s presentation occurred when he faced the crowd of perhaps three hundred -some affected individuals, many more parents and partners- and announced that he could CURE Asperger’s and HFA. His “cure” was simple and eloquent;he said: “You want to cure Asperger’s or HFA? Take the person to his or her bedroom, then close the door.”

In solitude the social deficits that characterize Asperger’s and HFA disappear. When left to our own devices, in our own carefully structured chosen environments, we suffer no stress and don’t seem any different than neurotypicals. Aspie’s and people with HFA crave solitude because it protects us from the discomfort of social interactions with neurotypicals who tend to pronounce us rude because we fail to initiate or respond to small talk, or who make fun or our appearance because we couldn’t bear to drag a brush through our tangled hair and we came out in public wearing plaid shorts and a tie-dye shirt because both garments are comfortable.

In addition to insulating us from the potential embarrassment of social interaction gone awry, solitude affords all of us (neurotypicals, too) with the maximum opportunity for reflection and relaxation. Who can really concentrate well on a difficult task in the midst of the hustle and bustle of, say, a McDonald’s at lunchtime? I would be willing to bet that ninety percent of the articles written for this site are composed in solitude. Alone at the computer, one can better organize thoughts, and craft ideas into coherent sentences and paragraphs.

Solitude is used by educators as both a disciplinary and learning tool. The “time-out” offers enforced solitude to provide an aggressive or over-excited child a chance to calm down and refocus. Students of all ages with Asperger’s or HFA often learn better in isolation; special educators frequently modify such students’ assignments by preparing printed instructions and allowing them to work independently.

Societal norms encourage solitude for certain activities: we have locking doors on fitting rooms and restroom stalls. The doctor always steps out and allows us privacy (i.e. solitude) to disrobe, even though he or she will ultimately see us unclothed. These conventions point to some innate recognition of the value of solitude.

Solitude does not have to be a time for quiet reflection. How many of us have never driven alone with the radio blaring to drown out our own less-than-melodious singing? Or danced like crazy in the privacy of our living room to a “Sweating to the Oldies” or similar DVD?

Human beings need solitude for a variety of reasons: protection, relaxation, reflection, concentration, but the root cause is ego. We need solitude-some of us more than others-to create and maintain our individual identity as seperate from the many social roles we may fill. In the world, I am Mommy, wife, daughter, aunt, sister, teacher, student, friend, co-worker, etc.. Alone, I am just “me.” Solitude preserves our uniqueness.