Overcoming autistic challenges: my trip to Portsmouth
Last month I travelled to Portsmouth Harbour by train, on my own, for the second time this year. I stood up on the train because there were limited seats, and I need space (owing to my OCD fears around germs and contamination, as well as a heightened sensory reaction when I am in close proximity to other people).
I felt slightly dazed and tense upon arrival in Portsmouth, and experienced some degree of health anxiety. This is connected to finding it hard to work out how I feel, and sensations are often mistaken and confused. I often worry that I might be sick. The feeling, which was probably anxiety, although it’s often impossible for me to pinpoint the feeling in the moment it occurs, passed quickly as I began walking. I walked fast in the direction of Gunwharf, through the shopping centre. I passed the Italian restaurant Carluccio’s , and thought it looked interesting as it contained a shop, so I looked inside. The shop was small, but sold an array of interesting condiments and other food items. I got excited when I noticed a jar of sauce vongole, or clams in tomato sauce, because I had been looking for this product for quite a while, after coming across a recipe in my Good Food pasta book for spaghetti vongole. I bought the jar, and I also bought a jar of anchovy and green olive pesto. This purchase shows how far I have come; I never used to buy unfamiliar brands, because my OCD fears told me there might be risks involved (unknowns, might be dangerous, might make me ill). But these days, I am comfortable buying most brands. Also, I enjoy trying different food, and experimenting with recipes because food is one of my specific, intense and specialist interest areas. I get bored eating the same food every day, and aim to try as many different recipes and food combinations as I can. I still get nervous about buying certain food items, but I’m working on this fear.
After Carluccio’s, I power walked to the sea front. I am a very energetic person, and sometimes I get intense bursts of energy that make me feel like a 10 year old in a 30 year old’s body. Because of my severe dog phobia, I took several detours, and could not therefore walk all the way along the sea front, which was a shame. Dogs scare me because they are unpredictable. I imagine them running over to me, being aggressive, barking at me, and suddenly changing from one state to another. Certain breeds scare me more than others. I’m particularly scared of Staffies and guard dog breeds, because of their association with fighting and their muscular build. I got anxious several times, but managed to deal with this and work round my fears. I did not let the fears prevent me from reaching my destination, which was the Natural History museum. I had discovered the whereabouts of this museum the last time I visited Portsmouth on my own. Back home I had googled the museum and virtually walked there using Google Maps. This had prepared me by making the unfamiliar familiar. I think that Google Maps is a life saver for autistic travellers, because the maps help us to work through our fear of change and the unknown. In our own time, in the safety of our own home, we can get used to a new place or location.
I really enjoy visiting museums because I love learning and acquiring information. This trait goes right back to my childhood, when I spent an inordinate amount of time studying each object and fact panel in museums, and had to look at everything in order and in great detail. These days, I don’t feel such a need to look at everything in a museum, although I still get anxious if I have missed anything out. I enjoy taking photographs because this helps me to further order the information; it is a way of collecting and categorising experiences and objects, which helps me feel more grounded and stable in a constantly changing world. I love putting the pictures up on Facebook, where I can share them with other people, which helps me feel connected and validated.
The Portsmouth Natural History museum has free entry, but it is very small. Nevertheless, there were interesting factoids about various animals, including flamingos. I never knew before today, that flamingos are pink because of all the carotenoids (a type of pigment) they ingest from the food they eat. There was also a butterfly garden, which comes to life in the spring (when I hope to return), and a very interesting panel all about the butterfly life cycle. Upstairs there was a bee hive behind a glass window, and I read about the bee colony, the Queen, workers, and drones. It felt good to re-learn information that I only have a shallow appreciation of, and I left the museum feeling a bit more ordered and connected with the world. When I was at the museum there was one frustration, however; other people. As soon as I heard that other people, including a few kids, had entered the building, I felt tense and on edge. I had to focus extra hard to take in the information I was reading, which meant I started swaying from side to side, using the sense of movement to block out the heightened auditory sense in order to concentrate. I also had to re-read out loud the sentences several times because the presence of other people makes me feel overloaded and distracted.
After visiting the museum, I walked back to Portsmouth Harbour. The weather was perfect. It was a dry, sunny, clear-skied day, although a breeze picked up, which meant it was rather hard work walking back by the sea, as I was walking against the wind. This made me feel a bit tense and nervous because the wind makes me feel out of control as it catches against my breath. Back at the train station, I ate a few oat cakes (“safe” food that I don’t worry about taking out with me, as it’s not perishable, and it is anxiety provoking eating out at new places because of my OCD related hygiene fears).
I then got the train to Portsmouth and Southsea because I was determined to visit The Works shop and H&M. These are two of my favourite shops, and I always make a beeline for them whenever I visit a town. The Works in Portsmouth, however, was disappointing as it was quite small. It was also very busy, which made me feel a bit nervous. It is hard to look at the books with people constantly walking past me, and this makes me distracted and irritated. But I’m determined and persistent when my interests are involved, so I forced myself to stay there as long as it took to properly examine what books were on the shelves. I ended up buying a book about the science of reading. As reading is one of my current major routines, I thought it would be interesting to read about the brain processes behind this activity. I love finding out about how things work and are made. I have a very scientific and philosophical mind. I had to wait behind another customer in a queue before I could buy the book, and I coped by chewing my lip and staring at a point on the floor, which helped me to grin and bear the discomfort of my OCD fears around germs, and the sensory assault of being surrounded by so many people. Luckily I did not have to wait long. I then looked round H&M. I endured the noise in order to satisfy my strong interest in clothes, but the only top I liked the look of, which had a Unicorn design, was not in my size.
Next I looked round Debenhams. I was interested in going inside because my town does not have a Debenhams, and I enjoy discovering different shops and products. If you are only familiar with autism from reading a textbook, this might surprise you. In fact, I do have a very strong need for routine, and really dislike certain changes, and I need to be in control at all times. Certain things in my life, such as my bedtime, must be kept the same at all costs. Yet in other areas, I enjoy experimenting and seeking out new experiences, as long as they are within the safety net of a routine and structure.
Finally I got the train back home, and am pleased to say that I stayed seated for the full journey. Luckily for me, I sat on a seat near the toilets that was far removed from the other passengers, so I had that much needed space.
I am so glad that I went to Portsmouth on my own. For a non-autistic, this might not seem like a big deal, but to me this is almost equivalent to climbing Mount Everest (although I don’t want to suggest the experience is identical). It’s the effort involved, the prior planning and psyching myself up, and the anxiety mingled with excitement, that made the trip feel like a mighty expedition. For a girl who, not so long ago, never travelled anywhere on her own, and at one time was almost completely housebound, this trip is also testament to the amazing power that the correct support has to transform lives. I am much more confident since I started receiving support from Autism Sussex and the LIMA (Low Intensity Autism Management) project. I speak to a staff member from the LIMA project once a month on the phone, and this is immensely helpful as a source of encouragement and motivating coping strategies. I must also thank my support worker from Autism Sussex. Without these two sources of support, life would be much harder, and I would not be so well equipped to rise above my difficulties. Going to Portsmouth on my own is a major breakthrough which took weeks of planning, a lot of anxiety, and a huge amount of will power to complete.