Life can feel overwhelming for an autistic person, there can be too much information. As soon as I step outside my senses are bombarded continually as I walk down the street. Loud, high pitched noises sound from all directions. Strong smells waft by. The movement of people feels nauseating. I feel in almost instant fight or flight. There are videos by the National Autistic Society that show an autistic boy walking through a busy, shopping centre, then eventually having a meltdown. You get a sense of how he must feel. For years, I didn’t know why shopping centres made me want to run out screaming as if there was a stampede of buffalos running after me. The sensory information arrived as a cloud, leaving me stressed and ready to flee. Alongside this daily assault, there is the problem of not enough information.
In social situations and learning environments it can feel as if you are missing whole chucks of implied information that others simply get and you don’t.
Studying acting and theatre at university was a dream come true because it was what I loved. I had weekly physical-theatre lessons and one day the teacher was describing what to do as part of an acting project. He'd said very little. I felt that I had missed something very integral. I quickly scanned the faces in the room of the twenty classmates around me. Everyone seemed to know what they needed. I wanted to get it right, as I always do, so I started asking questions. I didn't want to make a mistake. It was important to me to complete the task to the best of my abilities.
“How are we going to get assessed?” I asked, he answered inadequately. I wanted to know what was required of me, so I asked another question, “what do you mean?” suddenly out of the blue he screamed at me, “what do you think I mean Louise!” I honestly had no idea, that's why I was asking.
Feeling literally in the dark is a state I know well, now I don’t like to ask questions. I merely guess what to do and copy everyone else, even if it makes no sense to me. My questions are met with open hostility, and I feel I can’t ask them anymore. At school one day, I requested a ruler from my maths teacher, he threw it at me. Adults go from 0 to aggressive in the blink of an eye, something my dad used to do. I asked my dad for the remote control as an adult, and he threw it at me in anger like a projectile, with the intention of hitting its target.
Nowadays I just muddle my way through every task and conversation, even to the point where I’ve asked people, “is this something normal person would ask? Am I expected to know this?” Just to get an idea if my questions are worth asking, a barometer, to see if my questions have a place in rational discourse. Being autistic makes you an excellent communicator, which may seem ridiculous as it's a communication disorder, but you learn to communicate well with precision, you absolutely know what every word means.
Over the years I'd already worked out the millions of connotations each word has because I'd misled people in the past.
Other people do not give you enough verbal and written information because they lazily rely on facial expressions and body language, and a whole lot of back history is required to understand conversations. The people you meet, don't make situations clear to you because they never need to.
Several years after leaving university I started to volunteer at a hospital radio station. I liked the quiet, focused studio. All I had to do was concentrate on listening and talking. I felt so nervous at first that I shook each time I spoke. I used all the years I’d spent trying to make myself understood to bring clarity to my broadcasting. It was like I instinctively knew what the listener doesn't know. I described the situation in the studio, painting a picture from what I can see. Nothing can be taken for granted for me, due to the blind spots I have in not interpreting non-verbal communication well. I find I can have huge holes in my understanding of what is happening because my perception works differently.
The reason I pick up and prioritise different things from the average person is because my brain works fundamentally differently.
This leads to better communication in a medium that is different to regular social interaction because we are now all operating from a neutral place. Presenting on the radio is as unnatural for everyone.
The solution to the lack of information for autistic people is support from written sources and giving the option to ask questions without aggression. Each person you converse with needs to take the time to make sure they are clear and help fill in the bits that would normally be assumed. It wouldn’t take much to ensure that everyone, no matter what their communication style, could be helped to understand what they needed to know. For me, autism has a dual problem, that often operates together, too much information and not enough.