Everyone hates noisy, crowded places. Crammed into a space like a sardine. It’s horrible.
Yet for an autistic person, it feels like either you’re going to explode or die. Explode and die? We avoid these places like the plague, and we avoid situations that will lead to us being in places like this, like the plague.
Entering these places, feels like facing the mouth of hell. You see people dancing, talking and laughing – having a good time. I see, unpredictable people with unknown intentions, i see unwanted physical contact, and hear the roar of a thousand people all at once that not only fills my ears, by also my head, vibrating through my whole body.
Being in these places, the hyper awareness of an autistic person intensifies. Whereas you guys can tune stuff out, we are filled by it. We become part of the space in the room. So consequently we get knocked or bumped about by stray arms or elbows. I don’t like being too physically close to strangers at the best of times, but to sit or stand to closely to even one person, let alone many, makes me feel ill at ease. It’s like standing next to a zombie and you’re not sure whether it wants to eat you or not. So you stand quietly, trying not to move or draw any sort of attention to yourself, and as soon as they touch you in any way you freeze. Try not to look at them and desperately try to find some space away from the contact.
I’m aware that i’m making this sound like a horror movie, and in a lot of ways, it is like a horror movie. We HAAAATE crowds and noise and people. Yes, we hate people. You all suck! So, go away, leave us alone. Let us stand by ourselves in public, don’t talk to us, don’t even sit near us. Unless we know you, or think you’re ‘alright’.
When organising to go out somewhere, and you’re inviting an aspie, talk to them beforehand. See, if there’s anything you can do to make things easier for them. We like to be included and yes, the possibility of crowds and noisy places does make us anxious, so knowing that someone is looking out for us, is really nice and helpful. Even if its just agreeing to pop outside every now and then with them to get some relief and air.
I used to smoke, for this very excuse. It gave me a reason for standing outside at bars and pubs.
On the other end of things we have shops. Crowded, noisy shops, for me, aren’t too much of a problem. Because it’s easy just to go a different day instead, or to just dive in, grab what i need and dive out again. It’s not like bars, clubs or pubs where you’re stuck in a crowd for hours on end, trying to look like you’re having fun. You’re there in a shop for something, and when you find it, you’re out again.
Sometimes it can be difficult if we’re shopping with other people, and go wandering off, just then to lose them when we try looking for them. Having phones on is so handy!
‘Where are you?!’
‘By the birthday cards’
‘Oh yes i can see you now, i’m coming over’
In shops that i like, i do enjoy having the freedom to browse by myself. Which can mean that i go wandering off without the other person noticing. I call this ‘The Magpie Tendency’. Something catches my eye and i’m off exploring. I don’t do this to intentionally annoy or distract anyone from their shopping trip, it’s just something i do. And again, a simple phone call can help this.
I can get a bit tetchy if i’m bored, and just following you around for hours on end (or what feels like hours, am’i’right?!), but getting me engaged in things, like asking for my opinion on what catches your eye, is a good way to lower the tension i might be feeling. Most of the time, i’d probably go for a wander myself or find somewhere to sit and wait – whilst browsing my phone.
This is a difficult one, because i ‘have’ to be there. I can’t just walk out when i need to. But there has been times, in different jobs i’ve had where i’ve been in noisy, crowded spaces. The worst part in this situation is the noise, i can’t think, i can’t hear important information, because i can’t filter out every other noise in that space.
Headphones can help. If you have an autistic person in your workplace, that has problems with filtering out noises. Give them some noise-cancelling headphones, at a pinch normal ones will do. If its chilly in the work place, ear muffs will work just as good.
The strange partof the inability to filter sounds, is that it can affect our mobility and also our visibility. Everything gets jumbled, so we can’t always see if someone is talking directly to us, and we can get stumble or get lost because we are literally filled with noise. Everything else in our heads and bodies gets drowned out.
Giving us headphones may seem to you, to not be a good solution, because surely that mean they can’t hear anything. Wrong. You know, and we know, even with the best headphones or ear muffs you can still hear things, they’re just very muffled. Thing is, we’re not having to filter noises, so we can focus on where we’re going, what we need to do and on whats before us. We can see more clearly if someone is talking to us, with headphones on, than without.
Approaching the headphones
As an employer, how do you approach your aspie worker to suggest they where headphones. Don’t make a fuss. Don’t be formal. Just suggest if they want to listen to music as they work they can, and then they can make up their own minds if thats going to be something that is helpful for them or not.
You might then find that other workers want to do the same thing, or question why so-so is allowed to listen to music, but they’re not. Explain it. So-so has autism and has trouble with noise in the workplace, so they wear headphones to help them block some of it out. The noise causes them discomfort and distress. This is something they can’t help or just ‘get used to’. It also doesn’t stop them from being a good employee or stop them from being suitable for their role. They have a disability, and this helps them around some of their challenges.