I know nothing about autism. I haven’t seen The A Word. I don’t really understand what ‘on the spectrum’ means. I only recently realised that the book about a nocturnal canine sleuth that features in ‘The Curious Dog In The Nighttime’ doesn’t really exist. You see? Nothing. Nada. Zip.
So I’m exactly the kind of person that the National Autistic Society’s Too Much Information campaign is aimed at. It’s meant to raise awareness of the fact that people with autism can become overloaded by the world around them, and features pledges, that you can adopt to prevent overload. But how easy is it to live by? For seven days, I tried it to see what difference it made.
At first glance, the pledges that apply to me seem pretty straightforward. They either involve trying to be kind to people who are obviously distressed (offering to help them navigate public transport, waving them ahead of you in the checkout queue, encouraging people not to stop and stare at public meltdowns) or are just good organisational practice (making plans and sticking to them, giving workplace instructions that are clear, circulating information ahead of meetings). I’m particularly keen to try being a bit kinder, so on my way home from work, I throw myself happily into helpfulness as I spot a bemused looking commuter on the platform at Kennington Station.
‘Are you confused?’ I blurt out at her. ‘What? No!’ she squeaks in surprise, rapidly pocketing her phone and raking me with suspicious eyes. ‘I’m fine!’, she utters over a rapidly dissappearing shoulder. Not an ideal start.
As a journalist, being a clear communicator should be no problem for me. But I’m so often swamped by emails that I hurriedly bash out stream-of-consciousness missives that read like they’re written by someone who is drunk or lazy or both. In the last few weeks, I genuinely pitched one of my editors with the following idea: ‘It’ll be a bit like that thing I did a few weeks ago – but better’. I also recently briefed a colleague with: ‘You know the sort of thing I mean, right? You do, don’t you? Great!’
So when I try to stick to the pledge about making instructions clear and precise, people notice instantly – and they like it. “Woah: this is organised for you!” fires back one colleague. “Wait! You’ve organised a meeting and I ACTUALLY KNOW WHAT’S HAPPENING AT IT?,” retorts another. “A.mazing!” The response is so positive that I actually start to enjoy organising things. Although, admittedly, I do also get a message that reads: “Dude! Stop bombarding me with emails!” But that was from a music journalist. Music journalists are grumpy.
On a booze run with a friend to my local supermarket, I decide to try out the campaign’s suggestion of letting anyone in distress queue-jump you while shopping. Although, in the godawful Elephant and Castle Morrisons, the real challenge is finding someone who doesn’t look distressed at all times. I elicit a smile from a harried mum with small child that I allow to bypass me and get a hearty “Thanks so much!” from a man who’d been anxiously checking his watch and huffing at the queue length. Unfortunately, every time I attempt to ease someone’s anxiety by waving them ahead, the more agitated my friend becomes. “Well, you could always go ahead of me too?”, I offer to him. “I can’t go ahead of you! I’m with you!”, he wails.
I come up with a new system for helping troubled people on the underground: confining my assistance to anyone who is obviously looking for directions. It works instantly as I find a monumentally bemused man at Elephant and Castle station who has overshot his central London destination by several stops. By the time I’ve finished slowly explaining his route, I’ve missed my train, but it’s worth it: he’s beaming at me as though I’ve just handed him my winning lottery ticket. As we wait for the next train, we chat: he’s on holiday from India and finds the tube system a bit overwhelming. “Are you enjoying London?” I ask him. “I am! Everyone says the people here are not friendly, but I don’t think that’s true,” he says, before clapping me heartily on the shoulder and holding eye contact. “I don’t think that’s true at all.” Aww.
On a trip to the pub, I fail instantly in my attempt to follow the principle that “When meeting up, I’ll make the plan clear and make sure I keep to it” as the entirety of the Square Mile appear to be using the pub to play a game of sardines – giving me no choice but to move elsewhere and text my friends a new location. This does have its upside, though, as I suspect that having the serried ranks of Sebastians hawwing their bonus figures across conversation is probably not most people’s idea of perfect chillaxation conditions. When I eventually find one with room to stand, I realise something: I’m also meant to be ensuring that there is “somewhere quiet to escape to during busy social occasions” – an impossibility, frankly.
I am now routinely stopping confused people on the underground and helping them and, frankly, it’s going very well. I direct people to Waterloo via the Bakerloo line, I prevent people from taking the wrong branch of the Northern line and on one occasion I get the glorious pleasure of using the word “Cockfosters”. I also decide to only allow people in queues to bypass me if they look genuinely distressed rather than just grumpy, which means that most checkouts pass without incident. One massive consequence is that I’m much more aware of people around me: I’m noticing things I’d previously have blithely wandered past. These pledges are making me more mindful – but without all the deep breathing and yoga mats.
As the week ends, I’ve enjoyed myself immensely. I feel warm inside from all the people I’ve helped and I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how complimentary my colleagues have been about my improved organisational skills. The only downside seems to be going to the pub at busy times – it’s so loud, busy and free of quiet space that there seems to be no good option for making it autism friendly other than just not doing it.
Frankly, I have no idea if any of the people I’ve helped were actually autistic. But the fact that I didn’t know any of them to be autistic doesn’t mean that none of them were. And I assume this is the point. By acting more considerately, I may have prevented someone reaching the stage where things became so difficult for them that they sufficiently stood out to be labelled as autistic. This behaviour lets them be treated identically to everyone else and I feel pretty good about that. Plus, in a way it doesn’t matter – helping people is always a good thing. I think I may stick at it.