Last weekend I watched a boy, aged about six, standing on the chair in my local coffee shop (Costa, if you’re wondering): his parents just let him stand there, calling out, and clearly disturbing other customers. Some people stared with open disapproval and muttered to their companions. Others – in true British style – pretended nothing was happening. I couldn’t help throwing glances in a wanting-to-watch-but-knowing-that’s-not-polite kind of way. I couldn’t help it: I saw the anxious look on his face, and found myself relating to every flinch, shiver, and sound he made. It reminded me of a previous visit when, as an experiment, I took off my headphones, and exposed myself to all the input – my autistic world of the coffee shop – and wrote it all down as it happened. This is what I wrote:
There are people talking and laughing, cups chinking, a spoon stirring in sugar, the waitress clashing plates together as she clears a table, chairs scraping on the floor, someone’s dropped something with a clatter, the door opens and closes, the cold air comes in – in contrast to the heat in here. If I look up, there’s a glare from the spotlights that hurts my eyes, and a glare from the window too. I can taste my last mouthful of coffee, even though I’ve swallowed it: I can feel the smoothness of the milk, the sweetness of the chocolate sprinkles, the bitterness of coffee. There’s a man two tables away with a tuna panini. It reeks, even though he’s sitting two tables away, and even though I like tuna – like “rose-scented” air-freshener, the smell is too strong to be pleasant; it’s too much. Someone’s mobile goes off DIDIDUDA…DIDIDUDA…DIDIDUDADI. The barista bangs the coffee holder BANG BANG BANG, he grinds more coffee URRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR, he froths the milk WHHHOOOOOOOOSSSSSHHHHH. A child is whingeing on the other side of the room, GRIIIIZZMMMWHAA. Someone opens a bottle of coke, FIIIZZZZZZZZZ. There’s hubub. There’s music. The woman at the table next to me is gesticulating as she tells a story to her friends, and I can’t keep her arms out of my peripheral vision; it’s distracting me, which annoys me because I’m trying to concentrate on writing this. This is why I sit in the corner – the other two sides of me are occupied by wall; they don’t move, talk, smell, or nudge their bags into my space. (You never catch me sitting in the middle of a public space.)
And this is just the physical external stimuli. What about the other stuff? I am feeling sad and grumpy about an earlier argument, and feeling inadequate because of the the proto-meltdown I had as a result. I’m stressing about a complicated work project – not because I can’t do it (I can), but because I haven’t done it yet. My knuckle hurts where I skinned it climbing last night and I have a rope burn on my arm, which is sore (it drew blood). My neck is stiff. There’s caffeine buzzing in my head, but I’m also slightly faint from low blood-sugar (I forgot to eat). And I’m tired.
All of this drags my attention. All of it all at the same time – or at least in the space of a few minutes, which is the same thing to me. It’s overwhelming – I don’t have time to process each input in turn, and I feel like I’m drowning in it; but with headphones on (to cut out the sound part), a bit of sensory-processing space is freed to enjoy those aspects of Costa I like: the colour-scheme on the chairs, the comfy sofas, the warmth, the pictures (which are comfortingly the same everywhere – so I don’t have to process them anew each time I go into a different shop), and most of all, the coffee – medium latte, with chocolate sprinkles – which I adore.
So when you encounter a “weird” boy (or girl) in your local coffee shop – standing on the chair being “disruptive” – take a closer look: Does he seem anxious? How does he respond to sudden noises? Could he be autistic? Perhaps his parents are not ignoring him, but supporting him – letting him manage in his own way until he can settle to the environment, which he did, given time. So, please consider congratulating them on his behaviour (I did), because he’s coping fantastically well.