Last weekend, I survived a birthday party. It’s nothing new, but it is.
If you know autistic people, then you know there are some easy, basic, common triggers to where it all “goes sideways” for us. Changes to routine, unpredictability in events, people, ambiguous plans, whatever.
After the party ended, Mo insisted we go to the afterparty — essentially just a free-for-all at the Denver Children’s Museum.
On the face of it, that wasn’t a bad idea. We’d been given admission thanks to the party hosts. But apparently, everyone and their tots also had the same idea that gray, chilly Sunday afternoon as well. Once more into the breach, I guess.
If you want a perfect storm of cacophonous, noisesome, exuberantly buzzing sonic pestilence, then I highly recommend a busy kids museum. It’s perfect, but:
Cramped spaces, scattered chaos, and constant loudness are major stressors for us autistic folks.
I leaned over, almost yelling in my wife’s ear: “This would have ruined me as a kid.”
But now, not so much.
You read that right: I’ve found ways to cope with what used to be an impossible combo of stressors for me.
I’m not saying there’s a prescription, nor some strategy – just some benefit of circumstance, experience, and focus.
Here’s what helped:
Growing up loud. When I was younger, I’d start getting disconcerted and comment on how quiet it would get. As the oldest of five, there was always just noise. Siblings, activity, TV, something. Having the options to duck out and tune out was essential, but throughout life, bustle was my normal. It still wears me out, even if it doesn’t freak me out.
Have the getaway planned. We were only going to spend about 45 minutes at the museum, so having that set in stone was key. It’s not so much about the details of the plan – but that there’s a plan at all. That helps.
Being active, not passive. It’s like getting wet while swimming vs. standing near the pool: the difference is the intentional experience. My daughters were having a blast, but my youngest still needs supervising — it’s easier for me to “lean in” and keep watch and engage her (and Mo) and do my part to be a part of the noise, rather than let it splash me.
Find focused downtime. I can’t stay fully engaged forever, but I’ve found helpful “focused disengagement.” Near the end, we let Mo and Zo loose on the play kitchen. While most parents took that as a chance to bury their nose in their phones (hey, I’m guilty too), I knew I’d get distracted from that. So I watched the girls, interacting, cooking with their ingredients, following their paths around the kitchen, etching observations and just, I dunno, enjoying my kids playing? It gave me both enough to do without having anything to do.
We got home, and I got straight into cooking dinner.
“You did pretty well with all that, being you and all,” said my wife.
“Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah”, I nodded, shaking out excess party from my eardrums.
That’s good, because we’re doing this again next weekend. And the next. And the next.