(Photo fro Google Images)
One complaint I hear frequently from my fellow autistics is that NTs don’t understand them; they dismiss their problems out of hand with phrases like, “Stop making it out to be worse than it is,” or, my least-favourite, “Everyone’s a little autistic.” No. If everyone were a little autistic, there would be no such thing as a diagnosis of autism. With that in mind, my goal is to take you objectively through a standard school day that I experience as a person on the spectrum.
Your alarm goes off at 6:40 A.M. Your mom got you the extra-loud kind so you wouldn’t keep sleeping through it like you did with your last one, and it screeches, jolting you awake and electrifying your senses before you’re even fully conscious. You slap at the snooze button to quell the anxiety and discomfort you already feel starting to build as the intrusive noise increases its volume. The alarm stops, and you have four minutes to lull back to a state of unconsciousness before it starts blaring again. You go through this process almost three times, before finally turning it off at seven A.M.
As you proceed to get up and make your bed, you realise that your voice is stuck again. The prospect of opening your mouth and letting all that cold air in, of feeling your voice vibrate across your vocal cords, of hearing it in your ears, is a sensory nightmare, like the idea of hearing nails on a chalkboard. You know you only have until you go downstairs before you’ll be forced to shatter the silence and deal with the nails, because your family is down there, and they like it when you say good morning to them. Even if you didn’t, the tension and discomfort you would feel at knowingly ignoring social rules would be enough to push you to talk, nails on chalkboard and all.
Bed made, you move toward the clothes you’ve laid out and get dressed. T-shirt, jeans or sweatpants, high socks and converse sneakers. That has made up your wardrobe for as long as you can remember. It’s unoriginal and not flattering to your otherwise thin and marginally attractive figure, but it’s all you can deal with. Other fabrics such as nylon, netting, silk, wool, even cashmere, are all intolerable to your skin. They scratch, prickle, or they contain temperature in all the wrong ways. Even the way clothes are cut; scoop-necks, ankle socks, skinny jeans or clinging shirts, pants that stop at the hips, are all intolerable and simply cannot be abided. Much to your mother’s chagrin, even the majority of bras are too tight, too itchy, or some combination thereof, and so you’ve gone without, except during those rare, dreaded events that require you to “dress up,” in which case all of the above mentioned affronts to your tactile senses emerge from the closet and proceed to torture you for the duration of the event.
Dressed, you go down for breakfast, and the first sharp “good morning”s grate your ears. You smile and force the words out, feeling as if they’re dragging barbs along the inside of your throat as they emerge. Your late awakening means there is little time for more conversation, so you are mercifully spared saying much else.
You take your scooter down to the bus stop, the cold morning air hitting you so suddenly, you feel as if you’ve been dropped in the Atlantic ocean, and that overwhelmed, anxious, submerged feeling you experienced with the alarm clock that morning returns.
Eventually the bus arrives, its diesel engine roaring. It stops in front of you, and the brakes squeal, high-pitched, sharp and agonising. You cover your ears, but look around and see that your fellow passengers don’t seem to notice or care about the noise at all. You catch one of them looking at you curiously as you take your hands off your ears and board the bus.
Mornings are crowded because everyone is trying to get to work, so you’re forced to sit next to other people. Some of them are overweight and take up part of your seat, squashing you. Some of them are smokers or homeless, and their smell makes you nauseous. Some of them are bike-riders, and the tires of the bikes they hold in front of them repeatedly smack you in the knees, leaving bruises you can see later. Some of them have babies or small children with them, who talk too loudly, or worse, scream in that primal, soul-shredding way that only little kids can do. Biologically speaking, all humans are made uncomfortable by the sound of a baby crying, an adaptation designed to prompt a caring response in order to quiet them. You get the same biological feeling, but instead of wanting to provide care, the sound lights a fire in you, and you can feel fear and rage bubbling just below the surface, making you hate the source of the noise, though you know it’s just a helpless child. You pull out your earplugs and turn on your iPod in an effort to drown them out. Sometimes pulling your sweater hood up blocks out the extra visual stimuli, making you feel safer, like you’re in a cave, watching the world from within. People say it makes you look like a criminal, but its the only thing that works. Summers that are too hot for hoods make crowds a challenge.
You arrive at school, and have to begin the daily onslaught of weaving your way around other people. It’s worst when they bump into you; it sends shockwaves of irritation spiking through you, even when you know it was an accident. You approach your first class, half hoping that girl you sometimes talk to isn’t there this morning. She’s nice, and you like her, but making small-talk, pretending to laugh and smile, pretending to understand when she makes jokes, all while trying to block out the cacophony of the hundred other students around you, are all exhausting.
She is there this morning, but after the perfunctory hellos, it gets better because she comments on the dinosaur on your sweater. You jump at the chance to discuss something more than homework and the weather, and tell her it’s a parasaurolophus, a herbivore who is part of the hadrosaur, or duck-billed family. You tell her about the fact that it’s one of the only dinosaurs that chews its food before swallowing, and that it has over a thousand teeth in its mouth to accommodate the process. You stop, remembering not to ramble, but hoping she asks more; you love talking about dinosaurs; it’s one of the few things that can make you really interested and invested in a conversation. She doesn’t, and you’re back to discussing teachers and other friends. You smile and nod, all while wondering what on earth people find so interesting about talking about other people.
Class begins, and your teacher starts talking. Actually, yelling would be a more correct term. The class size requires this, but because you sit in the front row, it’s loud and overwhelming, and every time she walks past you, it gets even louder and you feel yourself getting anxious again. You also feel a curious fuzziness around your ears and in your mind, as if something were trying to psychosomatically put up a block between you and the noise. It doesn’t help though, and you can’t cover your ears because you have to take notes, plus, people would think you were being rude. If you don’t sit in the front where all the noise is, you’re forced to sit next to other people, who invade your space, and you wouldn’t be able to see over other students’ heads, because you’re less than five feet tall.
Your next class goes very much the same way as the first, except you get to avoid small-talk because you don’t know any of the other students in this class. Fifty minutes later, you get a few hours to yourself, and if it’s a Tuesday or Thursday, one of the days on which your only friend doesn’t have class, you get to go down to the library basement and tuck yourself away in the corner of the alcove where the elevator stands. The basement is a study space, so it’s completely silent, so quiet you can hear it, and that makes you happy. All your muscles relax, any tension and anxiety you were feeling begins to melt away. You pull out your lunch box and nestle yourself into your mind, picking up where you left off in the mental story you’d been conjuring up.
Your lunches are rarely healthy, because your tactile, taste and smell sensitivities make eating fruits and vegetables a big challenge. Thanks to that, you mostly stick to canned foods, cookies, cheese, and, on occasion when they’re available, blueberries. They make you feel less guilty about all the other junk you eat, and you can tolerate them; put them in your mouth, chew and swallow without gagging, grimacing or shuddering, but you still wouldn’t say you “enjoy” them.
Your last class of the day approaches, and you have a big test. In spite of not studying much, you’re not worried about your performance; psychology is one of your special interests, and as such, is something you know all about. Even the things you don’t know that are specific to this class, you can often accurately guess on based on your knowledge of outside but related areas of information.
You know all the answers, but in spite of that, your slow processing speed makes comprehending the question and writing out your answers take longer for you than it does for everyone else. Because of that, you are one of the last to finish. All around you, students are getting up from their desks, which flip up with a painful, unoiled squeak which stabs you in the ears and makes you feel like your teeth are being pulled. By the end of the test, you’ve suffered a hundred or more of these tooth-pulling squeaks, and every muscle in your body is taut. You’re shaking and rocking in your chair, both hands over your ears. This position makes writing impossible, so you stare at the questions, knowing the answers, but unable to write them down. When you think it’s safe, you take your hands away and write a few words, only to be shot again with another squeak, which frays your nerves even more and makes you even more wary of uncovering your ears. Finally you hand in your test, flapping both hands furiously, oblivious to how odd you must look to others. You really just want to get out of there, but first you have to tell your teacher about the mistake you noticed in the email she sent the class that morning: she made note of the importance of the date Thursday the 15th. Thursday isn’t the 15th, it’s the 16th, and she needs to know so she can fix it, lest anyone get confused. You are compelled to correct the error, because details are your forte, and when they are wrong, they suddenly become huge, insurmountable until they are fixed. Leaving that date uncorrected would mean you were left thinking about it for the rest of the day, perhaps the rest of the two days until you and your teacher saw each other again. So, in spite of the fact that all you want to do is run as far and as fast as you can, you stay behind.
Your professor, who knows of your condition, notes the agitated way in which you tap your pencil rapidly against your hand and shift uneasily from foot to foot. She attempts to be congenial and understanding, saying, “Those squeaking desks drive me crazy too.” She doesn’t know the half of it. If she felt what you are feeling now, she would be panicking, thinking she were on the verge of a heart attack. The desks may drive her crazy, but she has no idea what crazy really means. You quickly tell her about the dates, and she thanks you, saying she’ll fix them. You turn tail and power-walk until you are out of view, then book it as fast as you can down the hall and out the door. You sprint across campus until your heart is pounding and your lungs are about to explode, but it’s still not enough. You’re still surrounded by people, the very sight of whom overwhelms you even more. You get to the library and down to the basement, wrapping both arms around your torso in an attempt to provide your own pressure, or proprioceptive input. It’s the only thing that can contain your sparking, fizzing energy, like collapsing it into a black hole rather than allowing it to explode into a supernova. You sit rocking in the corner, your hood over your head, until you run out of time and have to catch the bus home. You still don’t feel completely calm, but you’re better than you were, and you have no choice but to leave if you want to get home tonight. The bus, crowded with people who are coming home from work, doesn’t help matters, and every stimulus, such as a person laughing or a bump in the road, feels infuriating, like a personal attack deliberately designed to annoy you. You finally get home and promptly head to your room, where you shut off all the lights and bury yourself under your weighted blanket, allowing the pressure to dampen your energy and emotion. You stay that way for half an hour or more, until you become human again, and can finally start your homework.
At dinner, you’re forced into more benign small-talk, answering the ever-pointless question, “How was your day?” You’ve told your family repeatedly that you dislike that question, because you rarely have a unique answer, given that you do the same thing day after day. They however, seemed inexplicably insulted that you didn’t want them to ask how your day went, and so you permit it, giving the same dry answer night after night, “Relatively uneventful,” a phrase you are almost certain your diagnosing psychologist would have labelled a “use of odd words or phrases” as per the ADOS-2 checklist, the “gold standard” of autism tests. You don’t mention the borderline meltdown; there are just some things that don’t need discussing. Having given your predictable response, you are then required to repeat the question back to your family members, in spite of the fact that you can guess almost verbatim what their answers will be. NTs claim to dislike echolalia, or the repetition of others’ words and phrases, that some autistics engage in, and yet despite that claim, they do an awful lot of it themselves. “How are you?” “Good, how are you?” “Good.” “How was your day?” “Fine, how was your day?” “Fine.” It is one of those double standards you don’t understand.
Finally, after dinner, comes your favourite part of the day; evening. Everyone scatters, and you are left to yourself in your room, a world of information at your fingertips via the internet. You disappear into the facts and stories, accumulating them in the vast storage bank in your head. You are alone with knowledge, as much as you could ever want, with no distractions, no social demands, no sensory overload, no incomprehensible expectations. You spend much of the night there, often til midnight, even on a school night, and it is only the knowledge of your early awakening tomorrow that eventually pulls you to bed, prepared to repeat the whole performance the next day.