There’s a line in my play, The Duck, that I keep mulling over. It says, “File it away for later; the things for me and the things for the rest of the world – the unreal and the real.”
It’s something that haunts my memories of being a young autistic girl. I needed to learn which parts of my experience were shared with others, and which got me told off for attention seeking. It wasn’t something I would know, since to me pain was pain, it was something I would have to memorise each time it came up.
I was regularly told that things I experienced weren’t real. It wasn’t easy holding all the rules in my head. Each of our worlds are created by our sensory experience. All of our interactions with objects and spaces, are filtered through how our minds perceive them.
Which is fine, as long as your mind is filtering information in a similar way to those around you. It’s only a problem when those experiences don’t agree.
The problem with having sensory differences is that they rarely agree with other autistic people’s either. It can often be one of the ways that we may be truly unique. Some autistic people may find common sounds so painful that they struggle to navigate the world without overstimulating their minds, others may find light or smell a problem, but be okay with sound. Some autistic people don’t have sensory problems at all. We are gloriously different.
I have certain things that I struggle with; if I’m walking down the street and I pass someone wearing a strong smelling perfume, then it feels like my sinuses have walked into a wall – I almost hear the ‘Thunk!’ as I walk into the cloud of hurt.
The sound of coins clinking together causes me great pain and discomfort – though you wouldn’t know it to look at me. I learnt that this pain was an “unreal” pain and so ignore my body’s wish to cringe and cover my ears.
The sound of dogs yapping and squealing is painful, but I’m fine with cats yowling and pigs squealing. There’s something in the tone.
The sound of metal cutlery scraped against crockery makes every meal time difficult. I am lucky that I have a family that do their best to eat carefully – and even apologise for the occasional screech. I forget how much I appreciate the kindness, until we go for a meal with other people and the whole mealtime becomes a horrifying battle.
It feels impolite to ask people to do things differently. I have been trained to take these pains upon myself and not to make any fuss, but perhaps I should. Perhaps it would be okay. Perhaps there is no “real and unreal”, there’s just a slightly wider sphere of things I find difficult compared to the average person.
The average person; now there’s an idea. Back in the early days of aviation, when deciding on seat placements in cockpits, a study was done to decide the optimum leg-space, seat height etc. In 1926 they took measurements from thousands of people (I say ‘people’, I of course mean only ‘men’; a problem we are still struggling with when it comes to sizing today, but that’s a grumble for another time) and came up with the dimensions of the average pilot.
It seemed an obvious way to create a space that would suit most people (and again I of course mean ‘men’). What really happened was that they created a space that didn’t fit anyone. In the forties, planes were having mysterious accidents and no one could work out why. They were crashing and burning because the cockpits didn’t fit the pilots.
Not only were the pilots not fitting the cockpits, but the airforce itself had added in a whole new layer of ridiculousness; they were employing pilots who looked about average. If you were tall or short, it didn’t matter how good you were, because you wouldn’t be near enough to this idea of an average man to possibly fit in the space.
They finally ran some tests on the more than four-thousand, average-looking pilots, to see how many were average on every measurement. They were stunned to find that no one was. They would have been better off picking a pilot at random and fitting it to that one person, because at least then they could have guaranteed a perfect fit for someone.
No one is average. Someone with an average arm span doesn’t have an average leg length. My husband is 6’ 5”, I am 5’ 8”, we were both as surprised as each other when we noticed we wore the same trouser length. His height is pretty much half leg, mine is more leg than body.
My point is (I do have a point, honest) that average measures of how we do anything, end up not suiting anyone. How we plan our shared spaces tends to be around an idea of the average human, but does that really mean the majority are comfortable in them? And are we being careful enough not to exclude people by aiming things at this mythical idea of averageness?
I have been arguing for years that we should be aiming at better than average. The aviation industry realised eventually that averages were costing them money, and they invested instead in adjustable seating.
We should be thinking about our shared spaces more critically. I find supermarkets a sensory nightmare, but a clothes shop with similar, harsh lighting is far more bearable. Why? Because the fabric deadens the sounds in the space and it’s one less sensory stress.
My world is as real as anyone’s, and just because the strains that sensory onslaughts put on autistic people are magnified, doesn’t mean that loud, bright, hot spaces don’t take a toll on other people too. If we all decided that we wanted better, then we could move away from what most people can cope with, and move towards what makes most people comfortable.
Sensory worlds are always difficult. There will always be things that I have to do to make things easier, because it wouldn’t be fair to ask the majority of people to change their ways for me. I wouldn’t ask a whole restaurant to eat carefully, but I could suggest that a new owner renovating a new space looked into adjusting the acoustics as part of their project. Little things can make a big difference and we should be thinking about these things before buildings go up.
Ideally we could make the world as adjustable as we can cockpit seating, and a lot of that comes down to just being a bit more understanding and kind to each other. I can adjust some things – sunglasses and noise cancelling headphones help – but it would be much easier to fit into a world that didn’t glare and shout so relentlessly.
Adjustments can and should be considered for everyone’s sake; not just the average human, who let’s face it, doesn’t exist.
My play, The Duck, is currently touring the UK, and you can find all future dates Here