This week I’d like to write about another mental disorder, one that shares symptoms with anxiety and panic attacks.
On Saturday I attended The Autism Show in London, which is the national event for Autism and Asperger Syndrome. After wandering around in complete awe for a while, (some of the sensory toys are incredible)! I started talking to the staff at The National Autistic Society and I was particularly moved by their latest campaign ‘Too Much Information’ The short film documents the ‘meltdown’ of Alexander, a boy who becomes overwhelmed and distressed in a shopping centre. Passers-by presume that he is just being a naughty child, but this is far from the truth. People who have autism often experience sensory overload in public places, causing them to behave negatively. I would highly recommend that everyone watch this, it certainly had a strong impact on me.
I also felt a little ashamed, as I’ve definitely thrown judgemental glances in the past, at mothers who ‘couldn’t control their children,’ without a second thought to their circumstance. I could’ve been judging an autistic child and a mother who is desperately tried to calm him/her.
It made me think about the similarities that can be drawn between autism, anxiety and panic attacks. Watching the video I felt a familiar churn in my stomach. A key symptom of my anxiety is that I become ‘over stimulated’ easily. In order to combat this I require a certain amount of down time to breathe and gather myself. However, if I’m in a public place with no opportunity for quiet then I tend to react emotionally. For example, I HATE supermarkets. Not the small ones that you find in city centres, I’m talking about the big ass monsters with thousands of aisles. As I kid I dreaded the Friday night ‘big shop.’ The bright lights, the heat and worst of all the noise, I hated it and I still do. Unfortunately, playing hide and seek with my brother is no longer a suitable coping technique.
There’s a Tesco local to us that I find almost impossible to deal with. Dan first noticed my behaviour around Christmas last year. It was very busy. I couldn’t think straight and my heart was pounding. The noise was deafening and I felt as though I might faint at any moment. Instead I became irritable and desperately tried to find an aisle that was quiet. Eventually we left a half full basket on a shelf and exited the store, I just couldn’t cope and I burst into tears as soon as we reached the car.
This overstimulation is not limited to supermarkets, I find public transport and airports difficult too, and more recently the office environment. So many people having loud conversations, the endless whirring of the printer and the sharp clicking of hundreds of keyboards. I feel the rage and distress burning inside me like a furnace. One day I might just stand up and scream “SHUT UP!” At the top of my lungs. It would be an interesting point for my appraisal at least. Watch this space…
My number one go to coping technique for sensory overload is headphones. When I’m struggling I listen to music or a podcast, the consistency of one voice keeps me calm and focused. This works wonders on public transport! I close my eyes and listen to The Beatles. How can I freak out if I’m in Strawberry Fields?
Second technique is space. If I’m feeling overwhelmed in the office, then I go for a walk. The fresh air and movement helps to diffuse the rage and emotional storm. Sounds basic, but it works. I take a good five minutes and wander around. There’s no need to explain the real reason for your actions to a colleague, I just say that I nipping out for a coffee.
Massive respect to all the people at The National Autistic Society and the incredible work that they do. For more information, visit http://www.autism.org.uk/
Remember – the next time you witness a child making a scene in public, maybe take a moment to consider whether they’re in pain, rather than simply being a pain.