The Covid-19 pandemic has led to a change in how we carry out our work for all of us – and for many of us that has meant working from home and reduced social contact.
My typical working week has gone from face-to-face meetings, visits, and home or office based work, to almost exclusively working from home with those face-to-face meetings replaced with video calls and most visits postponed. I wrote about zoom fatigue and the analogies it has with Autistic communication, last year.
Yesterday was different. Yesterday I stepped out into the “real” world and was required to drive to the nearest city and check out a potential location that may be suitable for delivering a service…..
And oh my goodness – did I really used to do this every day??!!!!!
The journey was great, I have always loved my time alone in the car listening to the radio or energising myself with a loud and uplifting tune. It gives me uninterrupted space to prepare my thoughts before appointments, and process them afterwards. In fact, this “thinking time” is something I miss in my working life.
Prior to leaving home I added the name and phone number of the person I was meeting to the notes app on the home screen of my phone. When I have lots to process, I can find it difficult to navigate my phone because I can’t find the right app or read numbers and letters easily. I was familiar with the area of the city I was visiting but used an online map to view the front of the building – this helps me hold an image in my mind of what I am looking for. Needing to look for something when I don’t know what it looks like is a non-starter for me. Potential business clients can help me (and lots of other people) by sending a photo of their building as part of any joining instructions – and if they send one of the person I’m meeting too, then I will be seriously impressed!
It was a frosty morning and I de-iced the car in plenty of time and dug out my warm wool coat from the back of my wardrobe. It has been some time since I wore it and it’s heavy weight and smart appearance was just what I needed to make me feel embodied, confident and business-like. Plus it has a pine cone in one pocket and a squidgy toy in the other, that I can hold and squish and feel without anyone noticing!
I was in the zone, so I got in the car and headed off.
I pulled up to the ticket machine at the multi-storey carpark entrance and wound down my window. I was offered a choice of pressing a button to talk to someone or pressing a big, flashing button with no instructions. I decided that the flashing button would be for the ticket, having reasoned that one doesn’t usually need to hold a conversation with another person in order to use a carpark. Correct! Pressing the button resulted in a ticket shooting out towards me and the barrier lifting up. I smiled to myself and noticed that already my racing mind was consciously thinking through everything – working out what was going on and why; and how I should respond. Those intuitive, “everybody knows how to do that…” activities that many people take for granted, often require considerable processing by myself and other Autistic people, and can result in me appearing slow, confused, stressed, overwhelmed or anxious.
Once parked up I needed to cross the road to the building I was visiting. The 4 lanes of traffic, including a bus lane, were in stark contrast to the country lane I live on, and I had not experienced such a volume, speed and noise of traffic in a long while. I stood at the kerbside, looking right then left, then right again but dared not cross. My brain could not process the speed of the vehicles; and the overwhelming noise meant my eyes couldn’t see properly and I could get no sense of how near or how fast the cars were by using my sense of vision or hearing. I gave my brain and body a few moments to settle and I instructed my feet how to move. Imagine a party game where you are instructing a blindfolded person around an obstacle course; “lift your left leg up a bit, no not that much, move it forward 30 cm, careful now” etc etc – that’s the level of instruction I need to give my body when coordinating movement in certain situations. I cautiously crossed the road once I was ready.
The building I had seen on google maps was right in front of me and I was pleased that I had looked up a photograph before leaving home. I even noticed the restaurant to one side and the shop to the other were exactly as pictured and I felt reassured by this tiny piece of familiarity and predictability. The doorway to the building had 3 panels of buttons for calling the various companies inside. Some had labels and some didn’t. There was a sign saying “Press doorbell for reception” and I looked all over the door from top to bottom but saw no bell and no switch that could be the bell. My eyes went back to the panels on the wall, and I tried to find one that had the name I was looking for amongst the moving mass of letters, numbers and sticky patches where labels had fallen off. I wondered if the sign requesting “Press doorbell…” was referring to one of these buttons on the wall? Perhaps what I think of as a doorbell – a single button on, or right next to a front door – means something different in an office environment? Maybe I could use the internet to search for “what is meant by office doorbell” or “how to find a doorbell amongst a load of buttons” – perhaps if I searched it up online and clicked “images”, I would get to see some examples of what this type of doorbell could look like that I could match to what was in front of me? But I decided against it. I needed to get my brain back on track so that I could attend my meeting.
I pulled out my phone and went to the note taking app on the front screen and called the phone number I had recorded there. No answer. I searched for the main company phone number, thinking that if the receptionist was going to meet me at 10.30am as planned, they would probably be at their reception desk and answer the phone….they didn’t.
I looked back at the panels of buttons and tried to work out the correct protocol for choosing which one to press. After much logical thought and a fair amount of trying to work out the potential impact of me pressing the “wrong” button, I decided to go for the panel that had numbers and one slightly larger button with a picture of a bell on it. I pressed it and waited. A voice came from the tiny speaker and I introduced myself, apologised for probably pressing the wrong button and enquired whether I could be directed to the company I was due to meet with.
All I could hear from the tiny speaker was a mumble of human noises against the backdrop of equally intense roaring traffic, seagulls, slamming doors, people shouting and talking, wind, car horns, bus engines revving, tyre noise against the road, brakes squealing, my breath, my heartbeat in my ears, the creak of windows being opened, the jangle of the door being opened on the shop next door, the delivery men unloading their van, the radio from the same van…..I picked out a few words from the mumble of human noise coming out of the speaker: “other door”, “Chinese”, “right”. I said thank you and walked away. I felt sad.
I considered going home and recalled how on one occasion I drove 150 miles to a meeting and had a similar experience, I left without even entering the building. I reflected on how difficult it is for me navigating a world that my brain processes as overwhelming. I ensured I regulated my senses because I recognised the overwhelm was spilling over from my senses and into my thoughts that were spiralling downwards into “why is it you are so rubbish”. I find it more effective to regulate my senses than challenge my thoughts at times like these. The issue is primarily one of sensory overload rather than anxiety. The anxiety stems from the sensory overload. I was grateful for my loss of smell and taste – the legacy of Covid-19 infection, as the diesel fumes, cigarette smoke and litter smells could have easily tipped me over into meltdown.
I put my hands in pockets and used my sensory items. I stepped back from the doorway and instructed my brain to pull away from tunnelling down into the finer detail and I got myself to look at the bigger picture. I searched for anything that could give me a clue. I walked down the side road, reminding myself that movement is regulating and good at times like this. I swung my arms a bit and made sure my fists weren’t clenched. I did not find the door. I went back to the main street and walked the other way and lo and behold there was a doorway with a sign on it for the company I was visiting.
At this point I stopped. I reminded myself that the people I was meeting did not need to be told about the online map showing the “wrong” door under the business entry for their company. They did not need to be told that I had tried phoning the receptionist just like the joining instructions detailed, but no-one answered. They certainly didn’t need to know about the traffic or the ticket machine buttons or any of the other ****ing buttons! They’d have no interest in my experience of crossing the road. If they asked me how my journey was – they would not be requesting any of this information – they wouldn’t actually be interested in my journey!
Now was the time to regulate myself and rehearse my “eye contact protocol”. Face coverings make this trickier as I tended to look at people’s mouths prior to masks becoming the norm. On video calls I make awesome eye contact because when you look at your laptop camera light it appears you are making eye contact with the person. You don’t even have to look at their face at all or even have it on your screen if you don’t want to!
So I gained entry into the lobby and BAM! the intensity of the lighting gave my brain too much information to process once again. Thankfully my already (fairly) regulated sensory processing system was able to cope and I prepared myself for meeting my host by repeating my mantra of “look directly at the person and say hello, then scan the environment whilst commenting on how nice it is, then make brief eye contact each time the person pauses”. I walked up the stairs, took a big breath through my nose not my mouth – mouth breathing in a mask feels extremely unpleasant, and in I went.
I am sharing this because it is my reality, and I recognised yesterday how far I have come in terms of understanding myself and managing all this. The world has got no easier, but I have become more able to meet my own needs. I no longer wonder why I am so rubbish at life – I’m brilliant at life – it’s just most people don’t have to go through the level of stuff I have to go through to get to a meeting, let alone to cope with the social, communication, sensory and other demands once inside.
This is a snapshot of me on a good day. To get a true picture of a good day I should add in the social anxiety about how I’ll come across in interactions and the anticipatory anxiety about what is going to happen. Plus the additional sensory input from perfume, aftershave and cleaning product smells; food that I need to eat or decline without causing offence; stairs and chairs to navigate without falling over; handshakes or physical contact; and remembering that I probably won’t recognise the signals in my body that tell me I need to drink or use the toilet until the last moment. I will be consciously repeating the protocols for dealing with small talk and making eye contact.
And if this is a good day – consider a bad day! Illness or stress make all the above far more challenging. No safety to regulate myself or seek clarity makes things worse. Masking autism for sustained periods is harmful, but is sadly necessary for me, in order to take part in the world as a professional person.
What will help?
There are some practical examples in this blog. Photos and clear information and joining instructions. Physical environments that are designed to be more accessible from a sensory processing perspective. Improved understanding of what it is like to be autistic –contact me via our website if you’d like to find out about bespoke training for your organisation or for yourself.
What helps me most is having a proactive approach to sensory regulation. I also use mindfulness – not as an exercise or technique that I plan into my day, but as a way of dealing with situations. I have learned to pause and notice and accept how I experience the world before reacting.
This short film is one of Aesop’s fables and I frequently reflect on what it means to me and how I treat myself in my thoughts and behaviour – perhaps you may take some positive meaning from it too? I recognised the need to follow the moral of the tale on my way home from the meeting yesterday – I was proud of myself for handling the run up to the meeting I described in this blog, plus everything that went on once inside – and I considered I could ‘quickly pop into the shops’ on my way home. Of course the additional demands this placed on my sensory processing system overloaded me instantly and I walked away considering I had done done enough brilliant stuff for one day and should give myself a break to recover and recuperate, and not push myself harder.