Over the Easter holidays, I was lucky enough to go on a trip to Spain with my girlfriend, to stay at her dad’s place for a week. This was a trip that had been planned for a while, and I was very excited. I knew that it was likely that throughout the week I would have to deal with some overstimulation and anxiety, from all the new experiences, but from the very start of the trip we had various plans set which made it run nice and smoothly. Besides one incident of overstimulation, the trip was perfect, and even then it was handled perfectly by my girlfriend and her dad. Here’s how it went, and what I learned about managing my Asperger’s.
As I said, I was very excited for this trip, and so before we left, my girlfriend and I had already planned a list of activities which we were going to do. Then we spoke to her dad together over the phone to discuss those plans, which was a good step for me. Having a plan is always reassuring, especially when it comes to things like holidays, which tend to lack the routine I normally have with school days.
The first trick was getting through the airport. I have travelled abroad before, and so was vaguely familiar with the process of getting through an airport, but on all prior occasions I had been travelling with both my parents, and this time it was just me and my girlfriend by ourselves. It was a bit nerve-wracking for me, and I was entirely reliant on my girlfriend knowing where to go and when to have your passport out. We also had a number of forms relating to Covid restrictions — proof of vaccination, etc, — which added a little bit to the uncertainty: at every checkpoint I was asking myself, which form do I need this time? I was very grateful that I had my girlfriend there, as she was experienced with making the trip and could handle the responsibility of getting to where we needed to be while I was just focused on navigating the mass of sensory input that faced me.
A while ago, I read about a study which compared where autistics tend to focus their vision against where neurotypicals focus their vision: both groups were shown images of a café, and a camera tracked where they spent the most time looking. Neurotypicals would look at the people, the windows, the bar, seeing the whole picture and then breaking it down into its smaller elements. But autistics tended to look at things that we wouldn’t consider as significant — for example, many fixated on the chequered floor —and were much slower to recognise the image as being inside a café. One autistic explained: ‘the floor just seemed the loudest’. This really struck me when I read it, because it’s something I’ve felt myself — certain elements can be visually ‘louder’ than others. Not just more vivid or striking, but just that they take more of your attention, and in my case more of my brain’s processing time. The study revealed that autistics tend to focus on minor details, and then build up a larger image in our heads, whereas neurotypicals do the reverse, visualising the whole picture, then looking for the details. For autistics, its easy to get overwhelmed, because we can’t help but see all of the details first, instead of just one image.
This was, to an extent, my predicament in the airport. Airports have large open spaces, but there are lots of shop signs and people and windows and other things to look at when you enter the space for the first time. To my eyes, there was so much going on that at first glance there appeared to be no navigable structure or layout at all. In comparison, on a later trip to Hull, I would find the train station a lot more easy to navigate; the path led you straight to the ticket entrance, and then it was easy to follow signs to the right platform in the narrow space—good design. The airport, on the other hand, seemed like it would be way too easy to get lost in. There were too many signs to observe, no clear direction —you could just sort of wander anywhere without knowing quite where you were supposed to be, and the uncertainty made me nervous.
Getting through security was a bit daunting. I often get stopped at security — I suppose I just have a guilty face. Whenever I’m about to go through, I always think about those old movies where they have interrogation scenes, and all the things I’ve heard about how to tell if someone is lying. Because a lot of those ‘lie indicators’, like not looking someone in the eye, turning their head away when talking, are just my natural behaviours because of my ASD — and every time I go through security I wonder how often miscommunications happen between those on the spectrum and the authorities; miscommunications like those that I’ve experienced in the past with teachers and adults, who think we are being rude or lying because we are being held to neurotypical standards of behaviour. Fortunately, this time, getting through security passed without incident.
The flight itself was fine for me; I kept my headphones on for most of the journey, listening to music and watching out of the window, or reading my book.
We arrived late at night; the airport was quite empty when my girlfriend’s dad came to pick us up. We drove home, and settled into the flat quite comfortably. The next day, it was time to explore around Spain. We’d planned the week so that there were generally only one or two activities per day, and this was very good for me because it gave me time to process in between outings, and so generally I was able to avoid overstimulation. However, there was one exception.
One of the things we did in Spain was go to a carvery (yes, I know a carvery is a very English thing, but we were meeting some other people there). We had already been out that day, having spent the morning walking along the beachfront, and then meeting some of the friends who would come to the carvery with us. From having some drinks at a bar, we then went straight to the carvery.
Introductions were made, but quickly I felt the sense of exhaustion from overstim creeping in. There was a candle in the centre of the table, and I kept finding myself just staring into it, because it was the only place I could comfortably look whilst avoiding looking at anybody’s face. I could feel my own expressions becoming more performative — it was becoming more of a strain to smile at jokes and nod along with the flow of conversation. When I was actually talking, it wasn’t so bad, though my answers to questions were short, but reacting when the conversation moved to a topic for which I didn’t have a base of knowledge — in other words, those times where I had to do what my mum has called, ‘smiling and nodding along even when you don’t know exactly what people are talking about’ — it was difficult to maintain an interested expression. I felt bad, because I knew I must appear rude, being uncommunicative and appearing uninterested, but I was just feeling the mask slip. I was stimming a little with my hands under the table, curling my fingers. It was also on this occasion that a new stim began to present itself: which I’ve dubbed ‘blinking stim’.
Blinking stim involves me almost screwing up my eyes and blinking hard. Sensorily, it feels like an echo of a twitch I had as a child, where I winked one eye rapidly and repeatedly. This blinking stim is not a particularly nice stim — obviously because it means I can’t see because I’m repeatedly blinking, and it’s not very discreet either — but most of all I’m not keen on it because it’s the one which feels the least under my control; once it starts, it’s quite difficult to suppress, and I often end up rubbing my eyes as though I’m tired in an attempt to almost reboot my brain by wiping my expression and the stim away. (There will be more about this particular stim in my upcoming post about my trip to Hull).
I also noticed at the carvery that I had started vocal stimming — I have a humming stim, where I make a low, monotone note very quietly, which I first did consciously and then unconsciously (I realised midway through the dinner: ‘oh shoot, is that me making that sound?!’). The humming stim is quite pleasing to me, and it’s one that I tend to make quite often when the environment around me is very noisy, because when I’m feeling lost in a swirl of uncontrollable noise, it’s grounding to be able to create a noise which I can control. It’s also good because the vibrations in my throat are a good sensation. I tried to stop myself doing both the blinking and the humming, because while the latter is nicer it is still not the most discreet, so I was picking at my fingers, fiddling with my bracelet, and at one point my flexing-fingers stim also presented itself. I also at one point fidgeted with a toy gecko which I’d bought in Spain planning to give it to a friend back in England but which we were taking round on our adventures in Spain. My girlfriend, being the angel that she is, noticed, and held my hand under the table.
When, after several minutes of my stimming getting gradually more agitated, my girlfriend, always attuned to my stims and knowing me better than I know myself, asked if I wanted to go outside for a bit of quiet. I said no, I didn’t want to be a bother, but a few moments later I asked her if she would mind just going out for a bit.
When we first stepped out through the carvery entrance, into the hot sun, I was distressed by the thought that the heat was just going to make me more overstimulated, even if it was quieter outside, but then we crossed the road into the shade of a garden wall, and it became bearable. I leant against a wall, and she held my hand. Outside, the mask slipped properly, and with much sighing, feeling like I could finally breathe again, I explained to her what was happening. She reassured me and the momentary break allowed me to clear my head.
We then went back inside, and after hearing from my girlfriend about how I was feeling, her dad offered to switch seats with me — he was sitting on the end, and thought it would be easier for me if I wasn’t surrounded by people.
Once again, my gut reaction was to say no — I didn’t want to be any trouble. But then after a few minutes, I asked if he would mind. Like going outside for a bit, changing seats was something which I hadn’t even thought about doing, but it definitely helped. It’s a good thing for aspies and their carers to bear in mind; sometimes, one end of a table can be quieter, away from a noisy entrance to a kitchen for example, or in a corner of a booth away from where waiters are bustling past. Sometimes, moving to a different end of the table can be enough of a reduction in stimulation so that you don’t have to actually leave the room, and then you can still participate, so it’s worth trying before leaving if you feel able.
When we sat down and I was facing people again, I immediately felt the masking instinct kick back up, recharged, effectively, by the short break outside. It actually acted like a temporary relief from the overstimulation — my body’s unconscious response to hide my exhaustion came back, and so I was automatically talking and making facial expressions again, without so much effort. I thought it must be quite odd for my girlfriend, seeing me exhausted outside, then watching me appear to become even more sprightly than I had been before, as the masking helped suppress the tiredness, although I knew it would just make me more tired later, it was a trade off that was worth it.
In my new seat, not only was I now in a bit of a quieter area, opposite me was (let’s call him Bill), Bill, who was very talkative and who gave me a focus to ground myself with. He had an English accent, which made him easy to understand (I process conversation quite slowly anyway, so I sometimes struggle with understanding people who have different accents to me). Bill also looked quite young, though he claimed he was much older than he looked, and had an easily readable expression — I find younger people easier to read than older people — and certain faces can be more expressive, I think, so even with my difficulty in recognising emotion, sometimes it’s easier to judge.
The rest of the dinner passed nicely, but ultimately, when it was proposed that we would go to another bar for drinks, I said it would be best if me and my girlfriend went back to the flat early, which she was happy to do. We relaxed at home, and watched a movie. She put on some chill music — just very regular beats. I wasn’t too noise-hypersensitive by this point, and in any case the music was quiet. I had some alone time which allowed me to down-stim further, and by the end of the evening I was tired, but relaxed again.
I wrote up a draft for this blog that evening. I like to record my experiences in the moment and get everything down. It makes me feel like there’s always something to be gained even from more negative experiences of overstimulation, cause hey, even if it feels like the world’s imploding, at least I can use it for a blog post, and maybe even learn something from it. In this case, it was learning that I’m actually quite capable of handling lots of new environments, and meeting new people, and going out — so long as I have breaks in between for down-stimming time. What set off my overstimulation at the carvery was the lack of rest breaks in between that and the previous activity, and so my brain hadn’t had time to process it and be ready.
Overall though, Spain was a fantastic time, and I’m ever-grateful to my amazing girlfriend and her dad for letting me share that experience. And thanks to you for reading this far! I hope this has been helpful or at least mildly interesting. Please remember to like, comment and follow if you enjoyed and would like to see more. As I said last week, I’ve got more blog posts coming up soon, and if you have any suggestions for things you’d like to see, or any questions about Asperger’s and life on the spectrum, leave them in the comments — any engagement really helps out this blog. Thanks again!