Last night Husband and I ventured out to our local Verizon store so that I could upgrade my phone (yay!). Overall, things worked out far better than expected in terms of what we got (he was able to get a new phone as well and at minimal cost!). However, the hour and a half we were there was a challenging experience for me, one that was all the more interesting with my new understanding of self through the lens of Autism.
Almost as soon as we walked into the store, I felt bombarded. The store was exceptionally bright with multiple screens displaying ads that flashed between bright colored animations. There were so many conversations happening across the sales floor that the noise seemed to bounce about in a chaotic jumble. Further, the moment we walked through doors, we were accosted by a sales person asking us questions (I empathize greatly with their need to practice aggressive customer service, but I hate when I get bombarded with questions before I can adjust to the space). It was also at that moment that I realized that I hadn’t eaten anything after work and was starting to approach the danger zone. Any of these factors individually would have set me on edge, but, with all of them combined, I was quickly overloading.
We went over to look at the phones, though I already knew exactly what I wanted from my online research ahead of time. The guy who came over to help us was good, but I was finding it progressively more difficult to follow what he was saying. I did my best at first to keep up neurotypical appearances. Lately, I’ve been trying to shake the impulses to hide and suppress my autistic traits, which has helped tremendously with my mental health. However, in these circumstances I felt more pressure to act NT. As a woman in a tech store, I already face enough sexism and condescension that I feel compelled to demonstrate that I am intelligent and competent. However, after about half an hour, I found myself seriously struggling to process basic verbal communications. Husband was respectfully deferring to me in regards to all decision making as I was the one paying, however, I was losing my ability to competently make decisions (particularly financial ones, eek!).
In the past, I would have fought to struggle through the interaction, much to my own detriment. Instead, I realized I needed to ask Husband for help, something that doesn’t come easily. I typed out a message on my phone that I was able to show him explaining that I was losing verbal processing and needed him to take over.
He gracefully took over the majority of communication with the sales agent while also taking time to repeat what the sales agent was explaining to us. Husband was careful not to dumb things down for me or patronize. He simply repeated what had been said with slightly differently wording more clearly for me so that I was able to keep up better. He also encouraged me to utilize my stim putty (Strange Attractor Thinking Putty from Stimtastic, awesome stuff!). With these accommodations, I began to calm down. Though the sensory factors hadn’t really changed, allowing myself to stim, both with the putty and some rocking, made it so that I could process what was going on better. I soon found I was able to join the conversation again.
Just a couple months ago, an event like last night would have sent me into full meltdown. In the past, I would develop the anxious knot in my chest and would quickly spiral into a meltdown in a situation like this. While I was typically able to hold it together during the encounter, it would have left me non-functional for the rest of the day and likely much of the next. While the rest of last evening was difficult, I didn’t reach full meltdown, even though after our Verizon adventure, we stopped at Walmart and I was bombarded by high pitched alarms, overpowering Christmas scents (why is out already?!), and too many people. The understanding I am developing about how my brain functions and the sensory factors that affect me is allowing me to foresee a potential meltdown and utilize tools to self-regulate.