A Story of Sensory Chaos (And what I learned)

Longtime readers of this blog may have read my piece on ‘a day of escape’ – a piece of prose in which, using grandiloquent language, I described a trip to a beach and the ruins of a chapel as a chance for me to mentally escape the turmoil wrought by lockdowns and coronavirus. A few weekends ago as I write this, I returned to rhossili bay with my family, partly in the hope of reminding myself of that sensation of feeling the worry’s of the world lift from my shoulders. As an autistic, I get very attached to places and people that I have positive memories of and so trying to replicate those experiences becomes part of my routine as I associate them with my confidence as a person. The opposite can also be true of places and people I have had negative experiences with.

One thing to bear in mind though is how different the situation was this time around. Last time, was a welcome opportunity to escape in the face of apocalyptic boredom. This time we hadn’t been in lockdown for quite a few weeks. In the space of a few weeks I’d retuned to my work routine, eaten inside pubs, browsed shops, been to the cinema and yes, had my first dose of the vaccine. Needless to say, I have enjoyed a return to some form of normality, because as well as being strange its given me a chance to creatively, emotionally and physically stimulate myself. Sitting at home may be less overwhelming but its far less invigorating. However, although I didn’t really notice it at the time, in those weeks when my life returned to normal, something was happening to me mentally.

Background

See, while I love socializing and being around people, I also need an opportunity to wind down and recover from all that sensory stimulation. This is old ground to me and many of my readers so forgive the quick explanations, but to put it simply the social-exhaustion was beginning to set in. It didn’t help that the weather was absolutely boiling (one sensory experience which does bother me is overwhelming heat. On sunny days, people who ‘like’ the heat go to the beach or the swimming pool to ‘cool down’. Autistics find this contradiction strange). As a combination of those factors I was strangely distant for most of the day – neurotypicals tend to mistake this distance as being upset or having something specific on my mind, meaning I need people looking after me. This is rarely the case. Rather, the ‘withdrawals’ are an attempt to recover from people and a pretty good signal that I’d like to be temporarily left alone.

So, you understand I was already slightly overwhelmed. That said, I had a good time regardless – I went swimming in the sea which might, in contrast to sitting in the sun, be one of my favourite sensory experiences, spent time with my family and explored the beach for its shells, markings and shipwrecks. It was, in many respects, a fine day. That was until, something happened which I’ve been thinking about ever since.

We stayed at the beach for a while. The tide was crashing forward further and further, and the last rays of evening were beginning to creep in. in the midst of this, I had this idea about wanting to swim in the cool light of evening as the sun cast its shimmering light on to the water. This was as fulfilling as I expected – mid-evening is my favourite time of day in the same way as autumn is my favourite season, so I spent a while immersed in the waves. Nothing so far had happened to cease my happiness – it was almost therapeutic in a sense, helping me recover from the mild burnout I’d been experiencing all day.

However, you know that feeling where you get out of the sea and location temporarily dosent seem to exist, as you try and adjust to your surroundings and scan the beach for where your family are. Well this is paticulary a problem on Gower Peninsula, especially when the tide is coming in. My family had started moving while I was with them, and as the tide came further and further in they had to keep moving to areas that would’nt yet been touched by the rush of the water. This is the problem – the beach itself is still absolutely enormous length wise when the tide is almost in, streching for a long distance. Being in the water, I’d lost my sense of time. Now, back on the beach I’d lost the people I was with. If I had to use one word to describe my feelings in this moment that would be ‘disorientated’. That’s important to bear in mind.

What Happened Next

After wandering around the area where I thought my family would be, I saw no sign of them – it later turned out that they were still there but whether it was just my confusion or the fact that they were just too far away, I couldn’t see them and they couldn’t see me. Something else you should know about the beach in question is that its separated from the seaside area by a mountain. The only way down or up is via steep, winding steps. Specifically, steep winding steps that I climbed in nothing other than swimming trunks. As you can imagine I was met with many strange looks. All the while, my worry and dislocation was reaching astronomical heights. I didn’t know what I’d do when I reached the top of these steps. I guess I had a vague hope that I might find my family somewhere in the mountain areas. Someone jokingly asked me if I’d lost a bucket and a spade. I regretfully snapped back in a shouted tone.

In the time following, I stumbled around the seaside area, receiving yet more strange looks, still in swimming trucks. I was visibly quite scared and overwhelmed, reacting to every suddenly amplified noise – the roar of cars leaving a car park, the piercing squawk of a bird, the bustle from a nearby café closing custom for the day. The height from the seaside area to the beach now seemed more dizzying, the setting sun more dazzling. It was getting noticeably colder, and I could feel that I was still wet, all made more poignant by the emotional background of having lost the people I came here with, having no means of contacting them, and not knowing what I was going to do.

There is a gate into the mountains which strech the length of the beach, and into the sea, forming the ‘worms head’- I frantically fumble with the lock for a long time. Looking out into the road ahead, I see no sign of anyone I recognize. Then everything happened very quickly – if you’ve never had a full scale ‘autisitc meltdown’ you can’t know what its like. The best way I can describe it is the sheer overwhelming quality of everything, from your emotions to the heightened sensory environment your in hits you, and you become unable to do anything in response. “FUCKING HELL!” I scream, bashing at the gate before processing to sit down, noticeably very upset and stimming by rocking back and forth and scratching at my skin. I hadn’t experienced an autisitc meltdown on this scale for years – I guess I kind of presumed that I wasn’t going to have them anymore. Its not any more bearable than the last time.

While all of this was going on my dad, obviously incredibly worried about the fact that the last time he saw me was going into the sea, was on the phone to the lifeguard service. I obviously didn’t hear this but from what I’m told the person on the other side of the phone needed to calm my dad down while they enquired about getting a boat ready to come looking for me. That’s one of the most unnerving parts of this story to me – as it turns out, there was not a boat sent out but the fact that there would have been give or take five minutes is incompressible and perplexing to me.

Back to me having a meltdown. Luckily, in the sea of people wondering what was going on, were two people who recognized exactly what was happening the moment they saw me. I didn’t think to ask how but needless to say they were successful in calming me down by talking to me, giving me a jacket to wear, and helping me find my dad’s car, which they had to break into by forcing the window down. Finding the car was not an easy task – I wouldn’t have been able to remember basic directions had someone had the bad sense to ask me for them in that moment. The only coherent descriptor of my dad’s car a had in that moment was ‘red’. Thankfully, I was in a fine enough frame of mind by this time to recognize the car the minute we found where the vehicle was parked. “I hope this is the right one because if its not I’ve just broken into someone’s car” one of the people helping me joked. Significantly calmer but still worried and suffering from the burned-out after effects of meltdown, I explained that I was autisitc to which they said that indicated that they’d noticed. Staying by the car that I was sat in, they phoned the same helpline that my dad had phoned five minutes earlier. Not long afterwards, I was located and the issue was settled.

What We Can Learn

In retelling this story, my mind keeps floating back to the person who mocked me that I again, regret biting back at and the people who eventually helped me. I find an interesting topic of disscussion is how we look upon people who may be perceived to be acting in a strange way. Whether that’s looking disorientated, looking visibly panicked or distressed, there’s a number of reactions. One is just to ignore someone and to be fair thats probably a common reaction, but how many times have you looked upon someone acting in a ‘strange’ way and presumed there must be something wrong with them for thier outward display of whatever’s going through our head. I don’t necessarily blame you if you’ve head that reaction – we tend to judge people by what we can see and hear and in public life there’s a set of criteria about how you should express emotion. Rarely is there a consideration of exactly what a person might be going through, how some people struggle to meet those social expectations of ‘masking’ thier inner thoughts and feelings, or even what kind of day a person might be having.

No one knows this better than autisitc people. With the emotional and physical sensitivity, as well as the social expectation that we need to hide that sensitivity lest we be perceived as ‘weird’ for transgressions of what’s considered ‘acceptable’, its easy for us to have those moments when we just can’t mask anymore. And its not always on the level I experienced at Rhossili Bay. It might just be an act of ‘stimming’, appearing noticeably emotional, or even one of us talking about how we’re feeling in a way that might be called ‘oversharing’. Meltdowns are often conflated with temper tantrums as a way of delegitimizing the experience. However, there was nothing attention seeking about what happened to me. Any attention I did get was the wrong sort and when I finally got some positive attention that was to calm me down from a point of panic and desperation. On that point, I think its worth stressing that not everyone can help when they see someone outwardly expressing themselves. Sometimes to try and help is the wrong response and I count myself incredibly lucky that there were two people who knew how to respond properly when they saw me. I don’t necessarily feel that everyone is obliged to help , simply that more people were considerate and thoughtful when it comes to seeing people experience intense emotions. If we could do that, we could make this a far more accepting world for autisitcs, and others.

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