A couple of days ago my friend Ib, of the blog Tiny Grace Notes, whom I was staying with, drove me to the airport. Ib knows me pretty well and could tell I was nervous, as I have become increasingly as I get older, about getting to the airport, going through security and making my flight, even though we were leaving ample time to do all of that. Still the combination of nerves due to traveling, my busy work schedule, being away from my family for so long, being tired and going to an unfamiliar airport had me on high alert.
It was snowing a little so we needed to have the window wipers on or Ib wouldn’t be able to see well enough to drive safely. But the wipers made a scraping noise that I found almost intolerable. Every time the wipers ran across the window they vibrated and made a noise that was akin to finger nails being raked along a chalk board. It was jarring and I could feel my body tense, so I gritted my teeth and began an internal dialogue with myself to try to calm and as I did all of this, I thought of my daughter. I thought about what it must be like to be bombarded with sounds and sensations that she cannot speak of, or if she does speak of them, the words that she speaks are not what she intends to say, so people are left confused, asking questions or simply ignoring.
As we drove and Ib, being Ib, had already sensed my tension and anxiety and was doing everything in her power to take care of me, I thought about how it is only recently that I’ve become hyper aware of certain sounds, sights, tastes, smells, and how things feel to the touch. It is because of my daughter and other Autistic people I’ve met and/or read and heard speak about such things, that I have begun to see how, things I once learned to ignore are now things I cannot ignore, like those window wipers scraping against the window and making me so upset it was all I could do to sit quietly and not begin to cry. I am grateful for this as it makes me far more understanding of what my daughter and others might be going through at times.
Ib began to very quietly and gently tell me what she was about to do, before she did it. So, for example, she would say things like, (I’m making this up as I can’t remember her exact words now) “just up ahead I’m going to slow a little and get into the right lane” or “the exit we want is in another 2 miles to the left” or whatever it was, she would say these things in that lovely, mellifluous voice of hers and I began to calm down. Ibby was modeling, actively demonstrating what I need to do for my daughter. She was also being a kind, sensitive and deeply compassionate friend to me and I sat there, my eyes fixed on the traffic around us, feeling so thankful that I know her and am friends with her.
As we drove along and I began to relax a little, I imagined a place where non autistic people would go where they would be given the very real experience of what it might be like for an Autistic person. I fantasized that there would be all manner of sensations, highly elevated and constantly changing as examples of what might be another person’s experience of daily life. Just as I found those window wipers so harsh and grating that I could not engage in conversation, I imagined that this place would both bombard the person as well as under stimulate so the person could experience what it is like to alternate between not being able to hear, taste, see, feel, smell and during all of this, demands would be placed on the person. Not just demands, but the person would be required to answer questions within a specific time frame and if they didn’t answer or got the answer wrong they would be required to go back and start all over again. However regardless of whether they got the answer right the sensations would remain, the things they would try to do to calm themselves would not be allowed or taken away and they would be forced to stay in this place indefinitely.
As Ibby helped me retrieve my bags from the car I felt tremendous relief knowing that I would be able to manage the curbside check-in, knew I would not lose the ability to speak, knew I would be able to find the correct line to go through for security, find the correct gate and wait for my flight. All the things I do without thinking, without questioning, things I take for granted. But I also was aware that this relief is not what others, others like my daughter, necessarily experience.