I had a meltdown. At least, I’m fairly sure that’s what it was. I’ve had many in my life, but not that recently – not since I realised I was autistic.
I’d had a very difficult week at work, and there was a work social arranged for the Thursday evening at a local pub. I arrived later than my colleagues, on my own. I was already so stressed that walking out of the office, and round the corner to the pub in the rush hour, through crowds of people, felt difficult and exhausting.
I arrived at the pub, which was also crowded. There was loud music playing, and louder conversations. The pub wasn’t very bright, but there were flashing lights, I think from slot machines, and dazzling lights visible behind the bar. By the time I got there, I’m guessing a lot of the people had had a few drinks and people sometimes behave unpredictably when they’ve been drinking. I could see and feel that in the way they were randomly shouting and laughing, so I felt threatened and even more on edge.
I couldn’t find my friends from work at first, so I walked round the pub a few times. The noises and flashing lights started to feel like physical blows, and some of the people were pushing past each other, and me, getting into my personal space. Someone turned awkwardly away from the bar and banged into me – not hard enough to hurt, not even hard enough for them to really notice, but it shook me up and I started to feel upset.
I found the people I was looking for, and made my way to the table, but as I got there I realised that I wouldn’t be able to maintain any kind of normal conversation at the same time as protecting myself from the sensory overload. And I shut down.
I remember saying something along the lines of ‘I’m out of here, see you later’, turning around and bumping into a few people trying to get out of the pub. Then I was outside, on the pavement, walking but feeling disorientated – I was expecting to see the Tube station on my right but it wasn’t there. I carried on walking in the same direction. A couple of times I stumbled, as if I’d missed a shallow step, or the pavement was slippery (I hadn’t and it wasn’t). But I didn’t stop and ended up walking round a corner and seeing the Tube, and then I knew where I was, and was able to get back to my bedsit ( where I stay when I work away from home during the week).
From the point at which I reached the table and knew I had to leave, I didn’t feel much emotion. I phoned my husband as soon I felt stable and was on my way back. I was slightly worried about what my work colleagues would think; I wondered what I should tell them, and when I should try to speak to them; I felt a bit embarrassed, and when one of my colleagues rang, I felt unable to speak to him on the phone but chose to communicate by text instead.
But that was all.
I’ve had meltdowns before, or rather, since I didn’t know what they were at the time, I’ve had episodes where felt a desperate need to get out of a situation, and immense amounts of pressure. At most of those times in the past, I felt overwhelming emotion – usually extreme distress which could transform into rage. This time I did not feel that.
I’m working on figuring this out. I think my acceptance of my autism, and of some of the darker aspects of how it affects me, has made a major difference to me. I think that in the past, I felt that my reactions were unacceptable; that I was somehow wrong or inadequate to react or feel in those ways in the first place; that I should have been able to control myself, and therefore felt even worse about myself when I was unable to. And that I felt judged by everyone else when I failed.
I don’t feel like that any more.
I seem to have become hardened in some way. Uncompromising. Maybe I’ve spent a lifetime compromising and I’m not prepared to do that any more. I’ll do a certain amount of adjusting myself and my attitude to fit in, but not to the extent that it causes me damage.
I have mostly given up on socialising for the moment. I might try to find a way of spending social time with my colleagues in a different setting, but it’s hard to find even a coffee shop these days without loud music playing in the background, and I doubt anyone would take kindly to taking coffees out to sit in the courtyard in November. And then the effort of trying to explain why I can’t cope, to people who don’t experience sensory overwhelm and therefore, with the best will in the world, can’t quite understand what’s going on – I don’t have the energy spare for that. Not right now.
I do like being social. I enjoy spending time with people I like, talking to them, listening to them, finding out about them, engaging in conversation about work, families, current affairs, films, music (I can even manage conversation about some sports, although not many and not football and not for long). I think this is probably far more common than the wider world understands – not all autistic people are introverts. And even if we are (I think I am), some of us get lonely without a certain amount of social contact.
But I clearly cannot do that in the only environments that seem to be available in a neurotypical world. Given a jackpot win on the Euromillions, I would start a chain of autistic-friendly venues. Or even just one. The Family have in fact started planning how this would look – a cafe with different rooms for different tolerances of noise levels, maybe even some self service points for those of us who can’t talk, or can’t face talking to people some of the time. Menus that are modular, with very plain and simple food, and the ability to produce and price any combination of ingredients. No special offers. No freezing noisy aircon.
In fact if there is anyone out there who wants to start up a new, autie-friendly business, please get in touch…