I’d like to take a look at how hard ‘easy’ can be for an autistic person. For this purpose, I’m going to use actors in a play. The setting is a classroom. The lead role is an autistic student (played by me). The supporting roles are comprised of the teacher, other students, and any aides in the room. The antagonist is the environment. Let’s take a moment and look at a school environment through the eyes of an autistic student.
First, let’s consider the setting of a typical classroom in an elementary school. The room is bright and colorful with pictures, charts, a calendar, and completed assignments displayed for all to see. Some colors are neutral, some colors are abrasive, and there’s enough of my favorite color to be calming for me. There are desks arranged in a familiar pattern. The books are in the right places, lunch boxes stored away for later, projects left out to finish. There are probably 18-22 kids, one teacher, and an aide or two depending on the day.
The desks are arranged in configurations depending on how the teacher designed the room, and are changed several times during the year — a surprise to the students. Most students who walk in on those Mornings of Change get excited and the regular noise level is much higher.
For me, those mornings are extremely hard because the change is so abrupt. There is no warning. I’m not excited. I take a step into the room, see the chairs have been moved all around, and I stand still by the doorway, not sure it’s my classroom. My anxiety rises. I don’t know where to go; I don’t know where to sit. Who will sit near me? Will I know my new seat mate? Will we get along? My anxiety rises even more. I panic — where are the colors? I want to find my calming color.
My heart palpitates uncomfortably as I tentatively look at the walls to see if there’s change there too. Thankfully the colors are still in the right places, so for today my anxiety calms a little because the colors on the walls haven’t been moved.
Still standing by the doorway, I start to tune into the sounds of students talking in different speeds, at different decibels, changing topics, with a squeal or two thrown in along with an argument here and there. It’s so hard to think. I am still trying to regulate from the change in the desk arrangement and can’t move to get my stuff yet. I still don’t know which desk is mine. How do I find out which desk is mine? My panic is uncomfortable. There are at least 22 desk chairs squeaking on the floor, pencils being sharpened, the teacher giving directions, and students finding their new seats. There’s too much to look at, so I focus on a spot on the floor, completely overwhelmed.
Minutes later, I’m still standing in the same spot by the doorway. I stand rooted by panic brought on by the change, the noise, and the confusion about where to sit. I wish I could find words to explain. My teacher tells me she wants me to move. She wants me to get ready for the day. If I don’t soon, she said she will help me move. What! Does that mean she’s going to touch me? Panic! I don’t want her to touch me. The anxiety I’ve been working hard to control is rising again. My feet are even more firmly rooted by the doorway.
How can I move if I don’t know where my desk went? I need to find my desk. The room started out cool, but is quickly warming up with all the students moving around. I feel too warm; my anxiety is heating me up too. The teacher has on a perfume that the other students are all saying smells real nice, but hurts my sinuses, a sweaty student walks by who forgot to put on deodorant, and someone let out a silent but deadly (SBD), but no one will own up to it. The strong smells are all around me. My head hurts. I can’t get away from them. High, high, anxiety! Still, I can’t move.
The teacher warns me again to go get ready for the day. Now I might be in trouble too! I want to get ready, but don’t know where to go yet. The classroom noises are a cacophony in my ears and I can’t think. I need to move. Why? I have to find my desk. Where is it again? I never found out. My mind races as fast as my heart.
My teacher’s voice reaches me again out of all the other voices and it’s not comforting. It sounds different- angry I think. She wants me to say something to her. I have no words. There’s too much to think, feel, and figure out. What do I do? Think! Oh! I still haven’t moved because I don’t know where to go. How does everyone else know where to go? So confusing! My teacher asks if I can see the bright tags on the desk with the students’ names on them. There are tags on the desks?
The teacher’s voice is rising and it’s hard to know why? Is it me? I’m trying so hard! I move towards the desks, anxiety still high, heart still pounding, still too warm, hearing noises all around me, the strong perfume smell makes it hard to breathe, a student bumps into me, the sudden touch makes me forget everything I was doing and I stand very still once more — all my progress gone. My panic rises again. My skin crawls uncomfortably. I can still feel where the student bumped into me. I take a deep breathe, I try to ignore all the intrusions on my senses, and with resilience I didn’t know I had, I continue walking slowly, deliberately around the desks and find a tag with my name on it. Relief! My head hurts from the smells; I’m overstimulated, overwhelmed, so I sit down and gently rock back and forth to calm myself.
My teacher walks over to me and says, “See how easy that was? Why aren’t you excited like the other students! Now sit up straight and stop rocking in your chair.”
I just look at her and no words will come out because they are as stuck inside my head as I was stuck by the doorway. “No, didn’t you see how hard it was for me?” I start to rock, forgetting in the moment, I’m not allowed, so I stop. What can help me? I look up and find my favorite color. I start to relax. It’s almost time to start my day.
The play ends there for I have accomplished my purpose of showing how hard ‘easy’ can be for autistic people. The environment could’ve been so easily changed for our main character. Instead of being an antagonistic, uncompromising foe, the environment could’ve been softened to be much friendlier. How?
First, give a simple announcement about the change of the arrangement of desks. And, hand out a map of the new arrangement with each student’s name written on their desk, so they know where to go and who they will be sitting next to. Easy!
Have the classroom be a fragrant-free zone and designate a neutral smelling place to go if other smells like uncared for sweat, or an SBD happens all of a sudden. Easy!
Tennis balls, felt, or stick-on rug-type disks put on the bottom of each chair leg would be a great softening of a harsh noise level in the environment. Easy!
There could be inside voices, a place for arguments or debates, and even some classroom sign language for frequently asked questions like — having to go to the bathroom, visit the nurse, or see the guidance counselor. Easy!
All of these modifications are doable, cost no money, need no training, and will help make this particular environment of a school classroom much easier to cope for every student.
A note for autistic adults — this can all be generalized to the workplace, where many autistic adults work in similar antagonistic environments as their foe. Let’s investigate changing the environment before changing the people in the environment. Easy!