Yesterday afternoon, a friend took me to a little nooky cafe, tucked inside an industrial estate. A former hardware shop, the entrance decorated with eclectic vintage clutter served as a thematic introduction to the atmosphere within. As soon as we pushed open the creaky door, I felt a draft of musty, humid, cool air blow directly into my face, then wrap around me like a nebulous mouldy snake. My skin tingled, as my olfactory senses picked up the various miasmic odours emanating from each visually charming piece of history on display.
The waiter ushered us towards the back. Slipping within a split second into a bubble of wordlessness, I followed obediently, semi-somnambulant, my sensory system already engaged in a (routine) contrapuntal wrestling match with the onslaught of smells, sights, and sounds. As we were about to sit down at the allocated table, speech suddenly returned, and words fell out of my mouth like marbles, tumbling down and bouncing sharply against the concrete floor.
“I don’t want to sit here, it smells funny. I don’t like the smell here.”
I heard what I said, but it felt like a mental-somatic synchronised out-of-body utterance – a dramatic declaration in grand style, complete with brushed strokes of glissando and staccato. Eyes wide and bulging in sockets, hands still sweeping the air in finely-honed theatrical gestures (a masking for stimming), I glanced at the waiter, and cringed at the look of utter disdain that shot through the air in my direction. Too late, the Autistic Bunny has spoken, no stepping back into the subaltern role of meek, social pariah. No chance to retract and don the mantle of the invisible slave to social niceties now: no more of that self-immolation accompanied by the brainwashing mantra, “Why can’t you just do as you’re told, don’t make a fuss, stop exaggerating!” As the waiter stepped back, I saw the reason for my olfactory recoil: the table he tried to seat us at was just next to the toilet. Bear in mind, this is the tropics. The combination of humidity and heat makes smells heavier, chunkier, mightier and all the more mephitic. Why should I subject my hyper senses to such horrific assault in silence, just because nobody else registers the stimuli, it does not mean the terror does not exist.
I turned around and walked towards the entrance. All the smaller tables were occupied, leaving only a large ponderous wooden table for six. I resolutely planted myself on the chair in the middle – all the chairs were different, and the middle one was the only comfortable one with a vinyl covered cushion. My friend, a little embarrassed, ask me why I didn’t sit on the wooden chair at the side. Again, the “diva-theatre” voice with tumbling psychedelic marbles came back on stage. My anxiety was high, I could feel nausea growing and inflating like a fetid balloon just under my trembling ribs. A throbbing, piercing headache began to form.
“This chair is more comfy, I don’t want to sit on that one, it is hard and hurts my bum!”
The waiter was, by then, sprouting angry little green monsters on the top of his head. He did not like me at all, not one bit. In fact, I think I was such an object of derision that he hovered around, eavesdropping on our conversation the entire time. I could sense him near us, flitting back and forth in my peripheral vision.
I do genuinely enjoy the occasional tête-à-tête sessions with this friend, we go way back into my childhood. However, every single social engagement leaves me drained, exhausted and teetering on the edge of sensory meltdown afterwards. This is the currency I have to deal with; and after years of spending unwisely, squandering my own limited resources to my detriment, I am now at last learning how to accommodate Self better.
Refusing to sit where the smell was so rank that it would cause me pain and terror; not wanting to hide my discomfort; insisting on choosing a site, space and situation that was more clement for my needs – all these things required immense courage. Yet, these are merely simple, basic accommodations that I need in order to function better, so that I do not damage myself physically and mentally. These are called Accommodations. Yet, they are invisible. Unlike a wheelchair, walking stick, or guide dog, sensory anxiety accommodations cannot be seen or touched by the unaffected.
There is a price to pay for practising accommodations to Self. Autistics have paid the price of masking, stifling and being re-programmed away from Self and intrinsic needs for generations. And continue to do so. In my case, after five decades of this agonising social struggle, I know that the waiter probably thought I was a terrible snob, a spoilt princess. But I also realise now that I need to create accommodations for myself, because the world designed according to neurological-normative systems is a harsh, alien and hostile one for my fragile sensory networks. Accommodating Self means reducing sensory anxiety, preventing painful meltdowns and lessening the waves of physical torture that follow in the after-shock of social interactivity. Necessary strategies for survival, and enjoyment of whatever limited pockets of gentleness that come by.
I developed a fever as soon as I returned home, but I was proud of myself nevertheless, for the courage to vocalise my needs and make sure they were attended to. Tally Ho, Autistic Bunny!