Wendy describes the challenges for someone on the autism spectrum for what many would call a simple outing.
By Wendi E. Powers
Going out in public is always an adventure for those of us on the autism spectrum. While I can’t speak for the others, I can share a personal example. Just what is it like to be me, a female in her late 40’s with “high functioning” autism?
First of all, it takes a lot of energy to prepare for the big outing. What to wear? Looking through the closet, I am frustrated with my fashion or lack thereof. Someone needs to design dress clothing for the sensory challenged! Sure, my mom gives me beautiful presents of blouses and fashionable accessories; but they often end up in the back of the wardrobe where all “itchy” things go to die.
Even as a child, clothing texture bothered me. One day, in second grade, my mom was called to the school by my teacher. I was sent to wait in the hallway as they plotted against me for reasons unknown.
After we got home, my mom took me into the bedroom and had a little chat about how un-ladylike it was for me to hang upside down on the monkey bars, particularly after removing my lacy underwear while wearing a dress.
Mom bought me bloomers. If memory serves, those ended up in the trash more than once!
TMI warning! After nabbing a pair of my brother’s non-lacey tighty-whities at about age 12, I never looked back.
So, yeah. My wardrobe consists of the very best selection of pure cotton T-shirts. I even splurged a few years ago to buy a few super-soft bamboo Ts for those extra-special occasions.
After making myself as presentable to society as I can, under the circumstances, I gather my courage and head out.
For me, driving is very comforting. There are rules (don’t we just love our rules!), and everyone is expected to follow them. It keeps the world civilized. Inevitably, some turkey will break one in front of me. Red-light runners really get me riled. Although road-rage is something I gave up after my early twenties, the anger those lawbreakers stir up in me would boil lobster! Deep breathing and counting to 100 (my safe anger number) get me to my destination safely.
We will not even go into the whole parking situation! More lawbreakers, double-spot morons, roadrunner losers doing 25mph in a 10… Oy vey!
On this trip, I am meeting a friend (ok, my only friend) for lunch. Good news is I made it. I know it is good news because my friend tells me it is.
Naturally, the restaurant is one of the few I frequent. I should say it is one of the three. It isn’t that I refuse to try new places; it is because of the looks I get from servers who do not know me.
Perhaps it is my fault for dressing like a teenager rather than their grandmother. It doesn’t help that I stand at a whopping five-foot-even sporting very short hair with not a drop of sticky product. Unable to make solid eye contact with strangers may also have something to do with it. Whatever the reason, I do not like those looks they serve me while forced to stand over me answering various menu questions and waiting for my order.
So, yeah, ordering. It is another reason I stick to the restaurants I know. Food texture sensitivity works overtime when trying new dishes. The cost of displeasure is not usually worth the risk. My regular spots not only know my name; they also know my order. If they get that wrong on the first try, the second is almost always a hit. I find this relationship comforting and affirming.
My friend starts to tell me about her week. It is nice to hear her voice. That is, it would BE nice if I could hear her.
Audio hypersensitivity is one of the autism gifts that I wish I could stuff into the back of the closet along with that itchy underwear. For whatever reason, my brain has decided that everything within earshot is precious information which needs to be gathered, identified, and sorted into various categories: the conversation about the ex-boyfriend two tables over, the customer demanding a manager, a waiter searching for that side order of onion rings… Those sound good! I love to eat them with barbecue sauce or tartar sauce. Maybe I should have stepped out of my comfort zone and tried the salmon.
“Are you listening to me?” my friend asks without condemnation.
After the apologies, I am forced to lean over my juicy cheeseburger so as not to miss the rest of her story. Of course, my shirt dips barely grazing the plate. Staring at the tiny wet spot, I shuffle the remainder of my schedule to make room for the hour of intense laundering which must follow this excursion.
Finally, the meal ends! Yes, that is supposed to be an exclamation mark. The conclusion of the meal means I will soon be out of my splattered shirt and into my even softer evening attire. Does it bother me that there are times I wish I could wear super soft baby clothes around the house? Maybe a tad. Once again, there is a market to be mined.
Outside the restaurant, my aching ears take a breather. Yes, my ears physically hurt when overstimulated.
Upon saying our goodbyes, we hug. That hug makes all the effort worthwhile. I do not enjoy human contact. Even as a baby my mom was upset because I cried and fought her when picked up. Handshakes are something I learned to endure thanks to my childhood pastor who gave our Sunday school class an entire lesson on the correct way to do it. Rules! But my friend gets a hug. Another bit of TMI, so does my therapist.
But that one tight hug from my friend… well, that hug conveys so much more than words ever could. She sat with me through an entire meal. She had not made any faces of disgust even while I was rocking back and forth a handful of times. In fact, the only looks of disapproval she ever doles out are reserved for anyone observing me zooishly. Yep, I made up that word. And even though she is a proper writer who made a 4.0 in college as an English major, she has never once corrected me. What a relief. My friend got me. She was not embarrassed to be seen out with me. I was loved.
That hug is my gift back to her.
Returning to the house, I tend to my shirt. It was not one of the good bamboo ones; my friend did not need to be impressed. But she always impresses me.
Born in Florida, I spent my childhood being bullied for reasons I did not understand. Autism spectrum disorders were unknown to my family or teachers. Taking everything literally, unable to read facial expressions, and emotional ruptures, resulted in being an outcast.
Today, art therapy provides me with a way to share my experiences and emotions with the outside world.