A night out on the town

Yesterday I voluntarily subjected myself to sensory overload. Otherwise known as a night out pubbing and clubbing.

I have never learnt the appeal of this choice of enjoying oneself, but I occasionally go when invited, because I think it’s important to share in celebrations with friends and fellow students, to show myself friendly and happy for them. I know that probably sounds a bit stuffy or disparaging, because that’s the kind of language people use when making fun of certain activities, but making fun or being stuffy is not my intention. I’m struggling to find words to express why I choose to do something so unnatural to me. I care about the people around me and want to show this – and am aware that I can find it very hard to show this. It’s very easy for me to inadvertently seem distant and aloof, and I am not good at banter, which is the way that people often show affection for each other. So choosing to go along to a social event is a concrete way of showing myself wanting to be part of the group and caring.

First we went to a pub. I had decided in my mind beforehand that I would buy the first round of drinks – because I know buying rounds is what is done when groups of friends go to the pub, and sometimes I forget or get confused as to when to do it, and if you don’t buy a round that is considered rude and looks like you’re taking advantage of people, whereas buying a round of drinks shows you’re friendly and being part of the group. I decided I should do it first, to get it over with, so I wouldn’t be worrying all night about when to do it and whether I wouldn’t get chance. So it was all clear in my mind what I would do – we would get to the pub and I would ask everyone what they wanted. I know from observation that this is how poeple buy rounds – they don’t declare it, but just ask everyone what they want. So this is what I would do.

It was all clear in my mind until we got to the pub. And then I took in the crowds of people gathered around the bar, people standing, people moving around in all directions with no clear destination, people moving then stopping, people standing then moving, people talking, shouting, laughing, and my mind felt swept away by a sense of chaos. I forced my mind to focus and realised the first step was how to actually get to the bar through the people.

The music was loud and rhythmic. I didn’t dislike it, as such, but it seemed to be pervading my body, taking away my clear sense of myself as an individual, so the boundaries between me and the music were not clear. I tried to focus on the bar, and my companions, trying to see what they were doing and following their lead. I would sometimes feel someone touch my back, to move me aside as they walked by. Every time this made me jump and took a while to process – why was a total stranger touching me? I knew it wasn’t rude. When I was younger I thought people were being rude and intrusive and it made made me angry, but I have since learnt that this is simply what people do in pubs and bars, because of the crowds, and the reduced inhibition from alcohol. They do it to everyone. People brush past people, or touch them to move them slightly, and it’s seen as normal and people don’t mind. But for me, each time it happens, I jump or freeze, momentarily shocked and distracted, losing my focus on getting to the bar.

My awareness and sense of self and general meaning became more and more fragmented. I was no longer a distinct being in my own space, with my thoughts clear. I was somehow merged with crowds and noise – invaded, violated, confused. I knew this was a pub and that people were here to have a good time, but the overall meaning of it eluded me. I didn’t – and still don’t – understand the appeal. My thought process was as follows:

Must buy a round of drinks. Must buy a round of drinks. How does that work again? Must find out what everyone wants. Where are they? How many of them are there again? Are they all here? Can I distinguish them from the many other people? They are all merging in, rather than a separate group. Okay, let me count in my mind – oh! My arm – who touched my arm? Who is moving past so quickly? Was I in the way? Must I move? Where are my friends? One’s over there – talking to someone I don’t know. Let me count – yes, I see all of them. Must ask them what they want to drink. Who to ask first? How will I remember all those drinks in my mind? It’s too loud – can’t focus, can’t hear myself think, can’t keep drinks in my mind. What if I forget and turn round to ask them again and I can’t find them, or I can’t remember whose I’ve forgotten?

To my utter relief, one friend said ‘Shall we buy rounds or just buy our own individual drinks?’ and it was agreed to buy individual ones. I focused on reaching the bar, ordering a drink, and taking it to a table with my friends.

Sitting at a table is good. Once I have a seat, I have a spot, which is my space, and no longer being invaded by strangers.  A wave of relief came over me as I sat down. I put my drink on the table and focused on my drink.

But then comes socialising. Socialising is hard anyway, but when your body and mind feel invaded by noise, and your ears are so full of noises of music and crowds that you can’t actually distinguish the separate noise of what your friends are saying, socialising reaches whole new levels of difficulty. My instinct is to zone out, because nothing makes sense, and the effort of making it make sense is exhausting, so it would be much easier to go with the flow and zone out. Then everything could just flow over me, as fragmented pieces of the world, making no sense, and not needing to make sense. But that would be rude – and defeat the whole purpose of going out with friends. So I make myself focus.

I know it’s important to make it look like I’m having a good time, to make people feel comfortable around me, and free to enjoy themselves without worrying about me, so I try to arrange my face in a sort-of smile. Not a huge smile, because to fix one’s face in a huge smile would look unnatural and creepy. So just a general happy sort of look. Even then, I’m aware of its fixed-ness, and try to alter it a bit, so it looks like I’m reacting to what people are saying. When others laugh, I laugh. I focus hard on their lips and try to lip-read. When people look at me to address me specifically, I concentrate extra hard and often say ‘pardon?’ because I didn’t understand.

I remember eye-contact. My eyes more naturally look down lower than the face – there’s too much information in the face, so when someone is not specifically talking, it’s easier to look at their clothes, which are neutral. But eye contact is important, so I make myself look at the faces, and in the eyes. As I am easily zoning out, I must avoid just staring at the eyes – must look at eyes for a few moments, then look away, then look back at eyes, then at forehead. Am I doing it right? How are people mentally responding to my eye contact attempts? I have no idea. I am sometimes aware of eyes fixating for too long, and make myself switch.

Some guy I don’t know comes to stand next to where I’m sitting, to the left of me, and talks to the girl next to me. She chats to him and they banter, not knowing each other, but able to banter. He is young and enthusiastic and fun, and she makes her eyes go big and look up at him. I try to analyse it, to make sense of it. It’s sort of a mating game, these whole bar interactions, where men come over and talk to women, and banter. Some kind of sexual thing – but yet not quite the mating game, because no one seems to be looking for a long-term mate. Just a sort of taste of it – maybe practice for future, or maybe to make them feel attractive and sexy.

My thoughts are brought short by sudden cold wetness! What happened? Everyone is shrieking with laughter. A drink has fallen over, and liquid is all over the table and all over my lap. The bantering man is apologising to the girl next to me, promising to buy her another one, while she’s saying that it’s fine. The drink is dripping from the table. I move my chair away, so the drips don’t go onto me. Everyone is still laughing and chatting about it. I remember that this drink was Southern Comfort and lemonade, and there is some satisfaction – some sense of order in chaos – identifying the exact type of liquid that is on my leggings and my legs.

A little later the friend to the right of me says that she’s getting wet. The drink has spread over the whole table and is now dripping onto her legs. The guy who spilt the drink didn’t think to wipe it up when getting a replacement drink. I don’t like uncontrollable liquid all over the table randomly dripping on different people, so I declare I will go get a cloth. I go to the bar and tell the barman that a drink has been spilt and ask for a cloth. He grabs a blue j-cloth and comes and wipes it himself. I watch the liquid get seeped up by the cloth, and also watch him miss bits. As he goes back to the bar, I see the table is no longer overflowing with liquid, but there are random islands of liquid on the table – little rings of liquid, merging together. I watch them, waiting for them to evaporate. They sort of evaporate, but sticky marks are left on the table The barman can’t have used soap. My mind focuses on the circles of stickiness – they are a good focus. Nice orderly geometrical shapes.

The pub closed at midnight, and then we went to clubs. But the description I’ve just given doesn’t really change a great deal for different settings. I had a couple of drinks, but was very careful to control alcohol intake so that I didn’t become dizzy. If I drink too much (and the threshold is pretty low for me!) then sensory overload is even harder to control, and zoning out harder to stop. My friends, however, drank quite a lot, and remained alert and cheerful and able to banter and know what was going on.

Several times I thought about the fact that my friends saw this night as a good, fun, relaxing time after the hard struggle of an exam they’d just had, and I realised that in terms of difficulty – concentration-wise, focus-wise, effort-wise – I would probably find the exam easier. I was amused by the irony of this. And yet I wasn’t unhappy – the people I was with were nice, easy-going people whom I like. Sometimes I’ve been out with people who seem to look down on me a little and can make snide comments, and this creates emotional discomfort as well as sensory discomfort. But this wasn’t the case here. There was friendliness and goodwill. Furthermore, I had made the choice to be there, and I was glad to be there, because I wanted to be with these people, and I was happy for them that they were so happy – and there was no doubt that they were totally enjoying the night out. And I wanted to be part of that – to share that with them, by being there.

I was also aware that, sensory-wise, the pubs and clubs we went to were not the loudest, and they didn’t have the intense flashing lights that make me automatically zone out. I’ve been to clubs that are so loud, with such intense flashing lights, that I’m actually unable to make myself focus, and zoning out no longer becomes an option that I can prevent by concentrating. So it was nice to have a night out where, although there was sensory overload, I was able to keep hold of some kind of focus.

And yet there remains in my mind a complete lack of understanding of the appeal of this sort of night out. Why do people choose this sort of experience as pleasure? And how does it function as a sort of relief from the stress of exams and a way of celebrating? I don’t get it at all. All I do is observe that it clearly does function in this way, and thus I speculate that the actual experience others get from this setting is totally different from the experience I get.

Perseveration and difficulties with change

It’s been a while since I wrote a blog post. It’s not that I don’t have anything to say – I’ve thought of all kinds of topics to write about, and planned them in my mind, but somehow the actual act of getting myself to sit down and writing them seemed hard. Not that I find it hard to actually write blog posts – I like to write them – but what is hard is the actual switch from whatever I’m doing to something different.

As this is a common aspect of Aspergers, I decided I might as well write a post about it – as a way of both explaining my absence and illustrating why people on the autistic spectrum have difficulties with organisation, and why the ‘perseveration’ thing happens.

I’d never actually heard the term ‘perseveration’ until I started reading about autism and Asperger Syndrome, and then I immediately knew what was being described. I can illustrate in by talking about the past couple of weeks.

Once I started doing the ‘100 things’ strategy described in my last post, I became focused on organisation. I started planning my meals for the week too, which got me thinking about health, and starting to plan exercise. I started keeping a journal to keep track of all I do each day, dividing my life into various categories, such as ‘house’, ‘food’, ‘exercise’, ‘finance’, ‘relaxation’, etc. This became the focus of my life for a few days – I had to be constantly aware of it for it to work, and in order to be constantly aware of it, I had to focus my mind on it to the exclusion of all else.

Then I started going for walks in the woodlands and in the moors. This seemed a logical way of combining the categories of enjoyment, relaxation and exercise, because I really enjoy such walks. Once I started, I would walk for hours and hours, so walking became the focus of my days. I started taking photographs of the trees, because I love trees – their shapes fascinate me. My days became totally focused on woodland walks and capturing them in photographs, and then collecting these photos onto my laptop, cropping them and resizing them. I completely forgot about all other aspects of organisation, and the journal I was keeping. I just remembered it yesterday, and realised I hadn’t written in it for six days.

When I stand back from this, I feel frustrated, because although I love walking in the woodlands and the moors, I don’t want my whole life to consist of that. I also love reading novels, and had actually planned to do some reading. I always took a book along on my walks, thinking I would sit down at some point and read it. But somehow my mind just wouldn’t switch from walking mode to reading mode. I was walking and I would keep on walking. I would sit down sometimes on the walks, to have something to eat, but I wouldn’t read, because reading seemed like a completely different world. The switch from focusing on the walk and the trees to focusing on a book seemed like a vast chasm.

This isn’t to say that I can’t read when on a walk – but to do that, my whole focus would have to be on reading. I’d be oblivious to the beauty of the woodlands and countryside around me. When I was a kid, my focus was often entirely on reading. Wherever I went, I would bring a book and I would read it – read it while walking along, reading when stopping anywhere, etc. – because reading was what occupied my mind.

I’m trying to think of an analogy so people can understand the difficulty switching from one thing to another. It’s kind of like moving to another country on the spur of the moment. For most people who have lived in the same country all their lives, this would be an enormous and difficult transition – because your mind is accustomed to your own country. You have learnt to take many things for granted which would all change if you moved to another country – it would be a huge transition, and would be very difficult to just switch from your life here to moving there. Not just in practical terms, but in mental adjustment.

Interestingly, I moved to Canada for five years when I was 21, and many people said how brave I was, but to me there was nothing unusual about it, because all changes are huge for me. Moving to Canada was no different. Obviously, in practical terms, the actual act of switching from walking to reading is nothing like the act of moving to Canada. There were all kinds of complicated things involved in moving to Canada, like applying to be a student at the university, getting a student visa, organising accommodation, booking a flight, etc. – whereas switching from walking to reading just involves sitting down and taking a book out of my bag, opening it and reading it. But the difficulty is not in the practicalities of the act itself – it’s in the switching of mindset.

This is why people on the autism spectrum often develop special interests. Once we are focused on one thing, it is so much easier to keep focusing on it than to switch to something else. Something else may arise from it, as a side thing, like woodland walks arising from my focus on organisation, but it arises because of a link. It’s much easier to switch naturally to something that is somehow linked than to switch to something which is unrelated. For instance, when on my walks, I started thinking about how I’d like to read some reference books about trees and flowers and insects and birds. If I were to do that, then I would probably start focusing on reading, and then may well start reading novels again. But if I were to just pick up a novel and read it today, I may enjoy it but it would feel disjointed from the rest of my life, unless there was a central theme of my life to which the book related.

This is why life can feel fragmented for people on the autistic spectrum. We often lack a sense of overall cohesion – ‘central coherence’ – so we find one thing to focus on, and somehow everything else needs to relate to this.

Understanding this can help with devising strategies. For children on the autistic spectrum, who have various activities organised by adults, it would be helpful to find some way of linking the activities, so there is not the uncomfortable jolt of switching from one to the other. For instance, as a kid, I would never want to go to bed when it was bedtime. This was because my mind was focused on whatever I was doing, and couldn’t make the switch to going to bed, which was, to use my analogy, like moving to another country. What would happen is that my mother would get angry, which didn’t help, because it became a fight, which made me even less inclined to relax and quieten for bed.

It occurs to me in retrospect that if instead there had been some kind of link, and routine, it would have been easier. It’s hard to know exactly what would have worked, but it occurs to me that maybe if lights had been dimmed, and soft relaxing music been played, or maybe a scented candle burnt (out of reach, for safety) at a certain time, then this might have somehow prepared my mind to quieten down, and I would have started to associate these sensory cues with going to bed.

I probably could do something like that for myself as an adult too (as I still have a lot of difficulty going to bed at a regular time) – although then I’d be responsible for the cues myself, so I’d have to somehow find a way of making myself do them at the right time. I’m still trying to work this out in my mind, so I have no definite strategies, but I will experiment with trying to find something that works. Maybe having an alarm clock go off at a certain time in the evening when I want to start preparing my mind for bed time – and putting the alarm clock by my aromatherapy oil burner, as a cue for lighting it, and that could act as a cue for dimming lights. I will try this and if it works, I’ll write another post about it.