Navigating anxiety and Asperger’s on a class trip to London.

My life has been very busy lately, so I’m terribly sorry for the long hiatus! Fortunately, I’m now back with a whole slew of new posts which will be uploaded over the next few weeks, about all the experiences I’ve had recently and how my Asperger’s has interacted with them. So, to start with: I recently went to London for a day with my Spanish class to watch a theatre production of the play we are studying. Here’s how I prepared for such an exciting but also anxiety-inducing trip, and how I handled it.

This was my first time going to London, and of course I already knew it was a big city and would therefore likely be very loud and overstimulating. So I went prepared: I bought with me my headphones, and my calmers (discreet little ear plugs designed to cut off the more ‘distressing’ high frequencies), along with some books and a notepad as distractions for the coach journey.

The most nerve-racking thing for me actually had nothing to do with London; it had to do with being at the bus station. Now, I don’t go on public transport very often; I find buses to be very crowded, loud, unpredictable and therefore anxiety-inducing and a big source of overstimulation, so I tend to avoid them, and when I do travel on public transport I always have someone with me for reassurance. As such, I’d only been to Bath Bus Station, maybe, once before?

I was nervous because I didn’t remember the layout of the place, and I knew there would be lots of people. Unknown variables and uncertainty are a big factor in my anxiety, even more so than a certified bad outcome, and so when my dad said he would have to drop me off, i.e. he wouldn’t be coming in with me and staying until the teachers arrived, I was very anxious. Being in public spaces is bad enough, being alone in public spaces is worse.

I went in, found myself a bench, sat for a few moments, then got up again and walked to a different bench because I thought it might give me a better view of the place, so I could look out for my teachers and classmates arriving. I used to get self-conscious about how I acted in public spaces – I used to think, out of some hyper-self-conscious impulse, that once I’d found a seat, that was it, I couldn’t move again and had to stay rooted to that spot (or else people would judge me!). Nowadays, I realise that no one particularly cares what you do – everyone minds their own business, and so what if they see you moving to a different place? Things are a lot easier once I got over that hyper-awareness of how I might appear to other people. It seems an easy thing to realise in hindsight, and while I was at the bus station I wasn’t too worried about other people, more preoccupied with trying to find someone else, anyone else, in my class whose presence would reassure me I was in the right place.

Finally, another girl from my class came in. That was all I needed — once I had found someone else, I was confident I was in the right place, everything was going to be fine, and I could relax. I didn’t know her that well, but she sat next to me, and we talked, and we ended up kind of buddying up for the rest of the trip. Soon the teachers arrived and the rest of our class. I sat next to the girl from before on the bus, and we departed.

I soon found that my classmate also had quite an anxious disposition – she was actually even more nervous than me, and that actually proved beneficial for me. I like to think of it as though her timidity put me in the ‘protector’ mode, where I felt responsible for helping her stay calm, and this actually helped me overcome my own anxiety because I was focused on helping her. Some people who are shy or socially anxious talk about how they are often scared to order food or drink for themselves in a restaurant, but they are perfectly capable of ordering on a friend’s behalf. This was much the same situation for me.

London was, as I had predicted, quite loud and busy. Just seeing all the tall buildings from inside the coach, I could practically feel the stimulation creeping in, and put my calmers in before we even got off the coach.

Before the performance, we went to the borough market and were allowed to roam unsupervised so we could buy lunch. Normally I get stressed when there is not an adult around to control a situation, and prefer to hang close to teachers, but on this occasion, I had a fantastic time going around with the same classmate I mentioned earlier. I took responsibility for navigating us through the market and back to where we were meant to be at the end – it felt good because I know I have a good sense of direction, and it made me more confident: having that responsibility of finding our way back and not getting lost turned the otherwise overstimulating situation into a kind of game in my mind, in which I had the role of navigator, which made it less anxiety-inducing. In any case, I was still in ‘protector’ mode, looking out for my classmate. For whatever reason that day, I was also not as badly hypersensitive as I had thought I’d be, which was good. My sensitivity varies, and usually I become more hyperaware of things like sound and touch (which can both become painful) and smell (which can become nauseating) the more overstimulated I get; but it’s not a direct correlation, and so sometimes I can be overstimulated without feeling like the sensory overload has kicked in, so sensory input isn’t painful. This was a lucky occasion, because it was still very loud, but the sound of the train on the tracks overhead and the traffic nearby and the crowd wasn’t unbearable.

Afterwards, we went to watch the show. I enjoyed the actual performance a lot, and then we went back to the coach and went home. Overall, it was a perfectly manageable day, and though I was predictably tired and quite stimulated by the end of it, it was certainly a pleasant experience. The hypersensitivity not kicking in was a blessing – and I think I owe that mostly to the fact that I wore the calmers all day so I never exceeded my maximum capacity for sensory input. The worst thing about London was the trains in the London Underground – it was quite busy and we went on one particular train which made a truly ungodly screech every few seconds, which was painful and which I had to put my headphones on full volume to block out. Thankfully we were only on it briefly, and everything else was fine.

Just a quick reminder – please remember to like, comment, share and follow if this post interests you, and check out the other posts on my blog. I’m going to try to go back to a reasonable schedule of once a week/fortnight now, hopefully! Thank you – every piece of engagement really helps out this blog in getting noticed, and I’m so grateful for all of the support!

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