autism

Lost in Amplification

At the Rally to Restore Sanity, Jon Stewart said this:

When everything is amplified, nothing gets heard.

He is, of course, talking about the way our news media inflates everything into massive issues. They take proverbial mole hills and make mountains of them for the sake of rating and viewer reaction. That’s not what this post is about, though.

Instead, this post is about how I had my first public social seizure in years.

It was downtown in a license renewal workshop I was attending this weekend. Downtown is always a challenging experience, and things were busier than usual this weekend because of a marathon. I started to notice things were amiss during lunch when, in the food court, the volume of the ambient noise kept increasing with no actual increase of foot-traffic. Simply put, my surroundings were getting noisier and noisier for no good reason.

As things amplified, my surroundings were making less and less sense. Auditory stimuli were becoming gibberish. Every breeze and change in temperature seemed the more profound, and my eyes were even wanting to block out some of the surroundings. I hurried back to our class location with almost an hour left of lunch, turned on my Nintendo DS, and blocked out the world until class started back up.

I think a classmate tried to talk to me during this time. Poor lady.

Once class started, I thought I was in the clear. The class in general had been pushing my social comfort zones like crazy, but every activity ended before my mind would start having issues processing everything. A couple of activities were close calls, but everything kept working out. Here was a safe place. A safe place, that is, until the final big team building activity of the day.

This last activity was to be done blindfolded. Good, I thought, there’s one sense I won’t have to worry about. Then we got our instructions: we were to impersonate an animal we had on an index card and find other people with the same animal while blindfolded based on the sounds they were making. Suddenly, thirty people were loudly making farm animal noises all around me, and I couldn’t see how to escape. I lasted about ten seconds. I groped for the wall, crumpled to the floor, and actually started crying. I was sincerely terrified of everyone around me at that point.

Everything was amplified, more than the food court had been, and nothing was making sense any more. It was a wash of white noise assaulting my senses, senses that had already proven vulnerable during lunch. The marathon, the mall, the forced social interactions, the noise – it was too much amplification. And I simply shut down.

The instructor saw what happened and allowed me to escape the room for a time, and, fortunately, I think most of my colleagues were unaware of my meltdown since they were mercifully blindfolded at the time. Still, it happened. I had a full-scale social seizure in public.

The moral is this: you don’t outgrow ASD, plain and simple. I have a pretty decent façade I wear in public. I’m pretty good at calming myself when things get rough. I have little ways I can stim in public to avoid making a scene. Still, none of those interventions were enough today, and I fell apart. What can I do but get up and keep living now? The past is the past, but that knowledge didn’t help back then.

Could this have been prevented? Sure. I could have refused to participate the moment the instructor explained the activity. I’m an adult. It would have been completely within reason for me to sit out. I just don’t like drawing attention to myself that way (which didn’t end up working well for me). If this had been my elementary class, I would have never done an activity like this if I had a child with autism in my care, and, if I had done something similar that still threatened to overstimulate, I would have made sure to give my child an alternative activity and possibly a different setting.

As parents, we know our kids’ limits pretty well. We know the behaviors that predict or escalate into social seizure. That’s when intervention should begin, not after the meltdown has occurred. Again, we can’t grow out of ASD. I don’t particularly want to, when it comes to that, but we do have to learn to live with the special conditions it places on our lives – even when we’re all grown up.

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