“My advice to other disabled people would be, concentrate on things your disability doesn’t prevent you doing well, and don’t regret the things it interferes with. Don’t be disabled in spirit as well as physically.” -Stephen Hawking
Anyone who knows the most basic facts about autism know that routine and repetition are among the most common traits shared by autistic folks. So it should come as no surprise that I have a very favorite restaurant and I choose it every single time anyone asks me where I would like to eat. Along with my many other titles, mainly I go by ‘Mom!’, which means I rarely get to go to my favorite place without any children coming along.
A rare opportunity presented itself to me to go eat at my favorite place, which also happens to be my aunts favorite as well. An amazing mostly authentic, non-chain Mexican place within a 5 minute drive, what’s not to love?
Well it was Friday night at 6pm so the number of people was not to love. It was busy, but we got a booth right away. I already knew what I was going to order, but took the menu and stared at it while my aunt decided her meal. The people across from us got up and left and their table was refilled by another family.
Our waitress brought chips and salsa, took our orders and wen to turn them in. I chatted with my aunt about different things for some time before I started to notice I was not paying attention to the conversation. I was struggling to listen over all the mariachi music, dozens of background conversations, serving noises, eating noises, kids being kids. Then I was noticing how bright the lights were above our table, how everything seemed to be painted something bright, the tables and benches are contrasting colors, even my food seemed too bright all the sudden.
My eyes started feeling too big and my head started to ache. I couldn’t concentrate on what was being said but noticed after awhile I was rambling about my kids and I had no idea what I was even talking about because I couldn’t hear myself.
I asked my aunt if she need a box, grabbed two boxes and paid in a rush. I didn’t even notice I was rushing until we got outside and I started to breathe again. I relaxed and noticed the sky was overcast, a rarity where I live. The urge to cover my ears was gone, I could hear how loud I had been talking. I didn’t even notice I was internally storming over the stimulation and physically relaxing while we walked to the car. I did not process the changes I felt until much later.
I did not think about my actions or what happened in the restaurant again until six hours later. I was sitting outside with my husband, talking about our days after all the kids were asleep, when I realized I experience this type of sensory overload all the time.
These situations have occurred over the course of my entire life. My kids birthday parties, out on a date, zoo days, grocery shopping. Basically anything, anywhere considered fun or exciting to neurotypical people in any way. Don’t get me wrong, I consider some of those things fun as well and enjoying doing some of them. After some time though, even if I am enjoying myself, I start “zoning out” and “wandering off” or “hiding in the bathroom until everyone leaves”. If I don’t find a place to be calm and quiet and take a break for 15 to 30 minutes, depending on the activity and length of time it’s run, I will get more and more irritable, frustrated more easily, louder, until eventually I melt down or shut down in some way.
The realization that these episodes are a direct result of my differences has been both relieving and frustrating at the same time. I despise feeling like I don’t have control over myself, feeling forced to take extra breaks feels childish. On the other hand, understanding my needs, once again clicked many of my life struggles into place and gave me tools and insight to control my reactions in a way that has previously always been out of my reach. For that I am grateful. I also realized after some reflection that everyone needs breaks. It doesn’t matter what spectrum you fall on, everyone falls on one or another type somewhere, and we all need breaks. It’s been a lot easier for me to say, “ I need a break.” Than it was to say, “I’m sorry, I wish I knew how to fix me.” I never needed fixed, I just needed to understand myself.