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” child in your local coffee shop – standing on the chair being “disruptive” – take a closer look: Does s/he seem anxious? How does s/he respond to sudden noises? Could s/he be autistic? Perhaps their parents are not ignoring them, but supporting them – letting them manage in his or her own way until s/he can settle to the environment, which this lad did, given time. So, please consider congratulating them on their behaviour (I did), because they’re coping fantastically well.