In this blog post I’m going to describe two real life occasions when I had an autism melt down in public. It’s a very personal piece, and something I feel extremely nervous about posting. However, I have two very important aims:
- Raising awareness, and highlighting what helps (and what doesn’t help) when someone is having a meltdown in a public area.
- Thanking all the people that have come to my rescue when I had a melt down or a panic attack. You were a complete stranger. There was no reason for you to stop and help, but you did it anyway, and for that I am so grateful.
You’ll notice both the scenarios take place at train stations. This is not a coincidence. With their bright lights, humongous surging crowds, neon signs, trains whooshing past, announcements played over loud speakers at ear splitting volume, train stations can be hell for people with autism. But they can also be heaven, depending on that person’s sensory needs. When I read How Can I Talk If My Lips Don’t Move? by Tito Rajarshi Mukhopadhyay (an incredible autistic writer whose name I doubt I’ll ever be able to pronounce) I was shocked to find out that Tito loved train stations as a child. In fact, it became part of his routine to visit one every day, just to soak up the sensory input. I’m guessing Tito must be pretty under sensitive to deliberately seek out so much sensation. But for those of us who see and hear things much more intensely than neurotypicals. For those of us who find it incredibly difficult to filter out all sensory input, train stations are hell.
I’ve developed several coping strategies over the years, such as ear defenders or listening to heavy metal to drown out the noise, sitting on the aisle seat of the train so there isn’t someone next to me on both sides, wearing sunglasses to dim the lights/avoid eye contact from strangers and using a travel card so I don’t have to hang around the ticket machine. But for now, I want to talk about what happens when these strategies don’t work. I also want to thank the people who made sure I got home safely. ‘Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers’- Tennessee Williams.
Scenario One: The Stranger and The Helpful Police Officer
I want to start by saying that the police have been given a lot of negative press when it comes to dealing with Autism. There’s good reason for this, including the case of Danielle Jacobs, a 24-year-old with Asperger’s Syndrome and mental health issues who was shot and killed by police over concerns they were going to commit suicide. However, my experiences with the British Police Force have been 100% positive.
On this particular day I was returning home after a meeting in Leeds with my new employers. The night before I’d been informed that my mother’s cancer had returned, and had dealt with this news like any sane, well-adjusted individual would. By attempting to drown myself in wine and kettle chips. I struggle with Leeds train station on a good day, but on that particular day I was hungover, ashamed of myself, and stressed out from both the news I’d got at home and preparing to start a new job. I didn’t have a travel card back then, and when I put my ticket into the machine I realised I’d got caught out by that nasty peak/off peak travel business. (If anybody understands the difference between peak and off peak train tickets, then please explain it in the comments, because I don’t have a fucking clue).
Anyway… as I struggled back through the crowd to get another ticket the noise of the station seemed to be growing louder, until it threatened to split my poor hung over head in two. I stood in the middle of the station, wanting desperately to move but unable to communicate this to my legs. The message just kept getting lost somewhere between my brain and my body, and I had a pretty bad panic attack. Eventually a kind man came over to me, and, without raising his voice, asking confusing questions or touching me, he lead me over to some seating by a coffee booth. I was given a paper bag to breathe into, and glass of water. Hardly speaking, this man sat with me until I felt a little better, then went to get his train. Thank you so much strange man. You really helped me calm down, and your presence wasn’t at all invasive or stressful.
Unfortunately, I still had to buy a new train ticket. While I was in the queue I started to feel more and more heightened. My senses where working in overdrive, and I couldn’t stand the noise or the sensation of strangers bodies pressed against my own like we were trapped inside a bloody sardine tin. I also couldn’t find my original ticket. I started to hyperventilate again, and this time someone in the queue walked over to me, put their face right next to mine and asked me if I was ok. A kind gesture, but the wrong thing to do when someone is having an Asperger’s meltdown. I wanted to ask them to move away. But once again I felt paralysed. Something had blocked the channel that sends messages from my brain to my body, and at that time I was physically incapable of speech. So I just screamed.
That was when a police officer got involved. I don’t know where he came from, or if he had any Autism training, but he was incredibly helpful. Remaining calm, at ease and non-judgemental the police officer quietly told me that he was going to walk me to my train. He didn’t touch me, ask questions or try to force eye contact, all of which would have sent me further into meltdown. He just walked in front of me. The crowd parted like the red sea and I didn’t have to stand in close proximity to, or communicate with anyone. Once the police officer had ensured I was settled on the train, he informed the conductor that he was not to speak to me, and left. Because of all this I got home safely and didn’t become overwhelmed or scream again. I was not judged or seen as a threat. I was just helped. Thank you so much mystery police officer. You dealt with that situation really well.
Scenario Two: The Neighbour Who I’d Never Met
This melt down took place roughly four weeks ago, and once again, I was overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers. I’d woken up late for work, thrown on some clothes and started to run for my train. Because the train to Leeds only comes every half an hour, missing my train by just one minute means I’m a whopping 30 minutes late. I’d recently been given a warning for being late to my other job, which had made me far more panicked about punctuality. While I love the job I have in Leeds, I sometimes find the commute to and from work extremely stressful and exhausting due to my sensory issues.
About half way down the street I suddenly stopped running. I tried walking, and managed a few steps before coming to a halt. I had lost control of my body again. I just couldn’t get my brain to send the right messages to my legs, and the short distance between where I was standing and the local train station seemed to expand until it was overwhelmingly large. I immediately had a panic attack, which I managed to stop only by holding my breath for as long as I could. I resumed the walk to my train station, but those first few steps were excruciatingly difficult. I had to break the process down in my head: foot goes up, leg moves forward, foot goes down. Gradually walking got easier, I made it to the train station and sat down to wait for the next train to Leeds. I was definitely going to be late.
The one thing I remember vividly from that day is how loud the birds were. Since I live near Heaton Woods, it’s perfectly normal to hear birdsong first thing in the morning. But to my anxious, heightened senses the birdsong seemed relentless and overwhelmingly loud. This noise, and my bosses face when I showed up late for work, were the only thing I could focus on. I knew I needed to phone work and explain what had happened, but the batteries on my phone were dead. I asked a couple of people at the station if I could borrow their mobile, but both claimed to have no minutes. My thoughts got stuck in a loop: need to phone boss. Can’t phone boss. Need to get to work. Going to be late. Need to phone boss. I started hyperventilating again, and this second panic attack lasted much longer, causing me to feel dizzy and almost fall off my chair.
The woman who was sitting nearest to me asked if I was okay. I think she put her hand on my shoulder, but this time I was able to explain that I didn’t want to be touched. (Normally I’m fine with physical contact, but during this kind of melt down my body goes into fight or flight mode, perceiving the physical contact/proximity of others as threatening and pumping me full of adrenaline). Some people find my insistence that I don’t want to be touched offensive, but this woman calmly reassured me that she wouldn’t touch me again. She told me to focus on breathing slowly, and kept reassuring me that it was okay, these things happen and my boss would understand. She didn’t touch me again or try to force eye contact, which I was grateful for, as both would have triggered a fight or flight response.
When I’d calmed down enough, the woman walked me home, carrying one of my bags and chatting about random stuff to keep my mind occupied. I was extremely grateful for this, as she’d missed her own train just to make sure I got home safely. It turns out she lives a few doors up from me and had seen me around for years. I wish I could remember her name, or the house she’d told me was hers, but at the time I was still to heightened to focus on the actual content of our conversation. Thank you so much mystery neighbour. I was completely humbled by your kindness, and I might not have made it home without you.
The word ‘stranger’ is often seen as negative. We warn our kids not to talk to strangers, and label the things that we are afraid of or don’t understand as ‘strange’. But strangers are just normal people we haven’t got to know yet, and sometimes they’re willing to help us out when we need it the most. To the strangers who’ve looked after me when I’ve had a meltdown or panic attack in public: thank you. Thank you so much. I am so, so lucky to be able to depend on the kindness of strangers.