Updated: Dec 18, 2019
I have a good friend; let's call her Cynthia Hawkins. Of course that's not her real name, but I asked if I could tell you about a recent...episode doesn't feel right, so...a recent incident she just experienced and she said I could. I felt it inappropriate to use her real name - it's not my job, nor my goal to uncover or embarrass her in any way. You see, my friend has autism. She's high functioning on the spectrum - (see more about it here), but she still suffers from its effects in her life from time to time when conditions are right...er, wrong...er, well, you'll see.
In her words:
"I was at a party tonight. I don’t go to many parties anymore. I used to sing the solos at this event. I can’t sing anymore. So I was listening to everyone else sing, and this woman began to nudge me to sing. My voice is so weak that people can’t hear me at parties. I declined. She insisted. She kept nudging me. I don’t like to be touched or jostled by strangers. I asked her to let me just sit and listen. She nudged me again and insisted that I sing. I told her again to please just let me be. She asked me what was wrong. What was I going to tell her? That I used to be the featured soloist at this event, but I lost my voice and if she kept pressing me about it I would become so sad that it would make me cry in front of 40 other guests? I told her, “You didn’t do anything wrong, but I am autistic, and I really just need to be left alone, thank you.” That’s when she tried to embrace me and said, “But I teach autistic kids!” That’s when I had to throw up my hands to block her from forcing her good intentions all over me and leave the room as discreetly as I could without calling attention to how unpleasant this was. I escaped into a bathroom and closed the door. She tried to come after me. I told her to please just leave me alone. She went away. I was hyperventilating and crying and choking, and my asthma inhaler was on the other side of the house. It took me 40 minutes of isolation away from this event I have been a founding and integral part of for 30 years before I was calm enough to emerge from hiding, and retrieve my bag (yes, she did try to talk to me again, but I developed tunnel vision and moved past her). I told my host I was having asthma issues and left. I’m back in a hotel room feeling spent like I suffered a seizure. I just need to say this. It is not easy, this life of mine, but I have done with it the best I can or anybody could given the circumstances. My hope now is that I don’t wake up with what I can best describe as a shame hangover because I just didn’t have the neurological reserves to deflect this woman more effectively."
Autism is a condition (this is my non-medical, very basic summation) where the affected individual has social impairment, communication issues and repetitive behaviors. There is a very broad spectrum of conditions and combinations of these conditions where the autistic person can be very high functioning, where it's hard to tell that they suffer from autism, to those whose conditions are so severe that they'll never be able to live what we consider a normal life without intense levels of assistance. At this point, if you're a doctor or psychiatrist reading this and your skin just crawled due to my super-layman definition, I'm open to you paying for my medical degree. In the meantime, just cool your jets and continue reading - I've always wanted to tell a doctor to cool their jets, so - thank you.
Those of us who have family members or friends that we love without condition or reservation who suffer from autism need to be at the ready to help them at a moment's notice. We need to be aware of their triggers, their specific stimuli that will lead to an 'autistic episode'. I really do hate that particular term, so if you have a better term than 'episode' please comment below. Anyway, we need to be ready to step in and be the gatekeeper between our loved one and the person, persons, or things causing the issue.
"Why gatekeeper?" you might ask. Have you ever called a business and the receptionist or ther personal assistant to the person you're actually trying to reach doesn't let you, well, reach them? They've been instructed to shield them from calls or visitors because something needs to be done and they don't want the extra distractions at that time. It's the same for our friends. We need to physically get between them and the problem. If you're diplomatic, the only thing that might get hurt is someone's feelings at that moment, but your job is not to worry about that person's feelings; it's to protect your loved one. The Queen's guards at Buckingham Palace and London Tower in Great Britain, called "Beefeaters", don't care about the feelings of those that they're protecting the Queen from. Their job is to protect her at all times, no matter what. While we won't necessarily need to use such extraordinary measures to protect our loved ones when they are beginning to suffer an episode, well...you get the point.
Me? I'm a sheepdog anyway. On top of being a father, I served in the Army for 12 years. I made a commitment that I would be prepared to protect those around me - with my life, if necessary. I'm not a violent person, by nature, but I've been trained in the violence necessary to defend myself and others. I will never expect that when I step in to be my friend's gatekeeper, that violence will be needed, but do to her higher need of protection, I am ready if the need arises.