Ugh. Horrible evening yesterday. Grenouille arrived home and somewhat to my surprise I saw the driver as well as the escort hovering outside the door.
“Can we have a word with you?”
“Yes, of course, come in.”
It turned out that G had been in a right old state all the way back, after An Incident during a College trip. My heart sank.
The trip had been stressing G out all week. It involved planning a Christmas shopping expedition to a big multi-retailer centre: budgeting for tickets, purchases and lunch out, then taking public transport from College to the Big City, navigating the streets and the shopping centre, interactions with strangers and food that wasn’t from the usual pack-up. Not just for a couple of hours, in our little town, with a dedicated PA, but all day, somewhere large and unknown, with shared support. For G, it was a massive, massive ask.
G is not on the autistic spectrum. But lots of the things that autistic people find difficult – crowds, noise, bright lights and colours, movement, unfamiliarity and unpredictability – are also difficult, sometimes overwhelming, for G. And don’t talk to me about clothes with the wrong kind of seam/label/cut/collar/waistband/zip/buttons, unless you really want to listen to a half-hour disquisition on the difficulties of finding acceptable garments for G. Or the head-melt of trying to explain to a terminally honest teenager, who is constitutionally incapable of understanding hypocrisy and lies, why people sometimes say one thing and do another. Threading a way through the battering of public exposure, without blowing a gasket, takes huge amounts of G’s mental energy and is very tiring. Add in physical and mobility difficulties, and – well, I hope you can understand why I, as well as G, was apprehensive.
So the preceding night, G put a careful selection of essentials into a small backpack, one that would be lighter to carry than the school bag, and rehearsed all the things that would need to be done differently about medication and food. We spent about forty-five minutes discussing and painstakingly selecting an outfit for the following day that would combine a maximum of comfort with the sort of style that G felt was appropriate to display while in a group of peers. It then took a further 2 hours for G to wind down enough actually to go to bed.
It’s no good trying to hurry G up in stressful situations. If ever there was a proof of ‘more haste, less speed’, it’s G’s reaction to chivvying. And that was one of the pressures of the trip: public transport, which has big steps and no seatbelts, and which (unlike the car that can leave whenever G is ready), won’t wait if you’re late; and doesn’t turn up until it feels like it, even if you’ve been hanging around in highly-strung anticipation for ages. Instead of a bedtime story or singalong, we had to go through several iterations of what-if-I’m-late and what-if-the-train-is-late.
In the morning, G got up good and early, and hustled through breakfast (having chosen, the previous night, something that would be easy and quick to eat). Everything went merrily as a marriage-bell. G even had time to take everything out of the backpack, and put it all back in again, to be triply sure that everything that should be there, was there, before the taxi arrived.
I watched G walk off up the path, five foot three and six stone eight pounds of heroic, if unsteady-on-the-legs, determination. In drainpipe jeans, walking boots and a short, unpadded jacket instead of the usual puffa (which would be more awkward to carry about inside the mall), G looked even tinier and more fragile than usual, and I felt a nervous clutch in my middle.
But it was fine. No phone calls, nothing, until the taxi rolled home again.
It turned out that catching the train had been a relative doddle, but the arrival went badly wrong for G. As staff – one inside the train and one outside – were encouraging G to descend, slowly and carefully, to the platform, a man waiting to board decided to intervene. The intervention consisted of seizing hold of G around the middle, apparently with the intention to bypass the lengthy climbing process and simply plonk G on the platform. College staff, horrified, immediately shouted, “No!” and stepped in to stop him. G, after further, disorientated hesitation and a bit of hyperventilating, eventually made it down safely, and was whisked off, shopswards, in the group.
G did not want to spoil things for the rest of the group by making a fuss at the time, but seemed to have had a severe delayed-shock reaction once in the safety of the familiar taxi. The taxi staff were concerned, having never seen G in such a state. I thanked them for letting me know, and they took their leave.
“G, do you want to talk about it?”
Over a cup of tea, and a restorative slice of lemon drizzle cake, punctuated with the odd shout, and dashing off to sit wedged in a cramped corner for a few minutes to help contain the bad feelings, the story emerged in bits and pieces.
“I was scared, I didn’t know what he was doing.”
“He didn’t say anything and he didn’t look at me.”
“He didn’t ask my permission, he just invaded my personal space.”
“I couldn’t see his face because his hood was up, when he put his hands on me it was scary.”
“I was shocked, I don’t like people touching me without my permission.”
“It felt like he was pushing me around, it reminded me of when I was bullied.”
“It didn’t feel right.”
“I didn’t have time to think about it then, because we had to get over the bridge to the other place. I kept it all in because I didn’t want to spoil it for the others.”
“When I got in the taxi, it all came back to me and I couldn’t help myself from upsetting.”
“I don’t want to go back to College, I’ll be remembering in my body how I felt.”
“I want to go back to College, I want to see my friends and I want to talk to my pastoral tutor.”
“I don’t want to talk to about what happened, I want to talk about how to stop it happening again.”
Ouch. Finger right on the nub of it, G, and the most difficult problem to solve, because essentially, it relies on being able to assume that people you don’t know are reasonable, respectful and trustworthy human beings. And as you’ve just found out, that ain’t always a safe assumption. So,
Public service announcement for non-disabled people:
Do NOT lay hands,
unasked and without permission,
on a disabled person going about their business,
at their pace,
in a public place,
with a view to speeding them up.
You are NOT ‘helping’.
You are committing an ASSAULT.
On the ‘helping’ thing, several people since then have suggested that the other person was ‘just trying to help’. I’m not buying it, because G disagrees. G did not experience the contact as an altruistic attempt to assist, but as a coercive attempt to serve the other person’s wish for speed. I am not going to argue, and I will lambast anyone who does try to argue. There was disrespect enough in this attempt to deny G bodily autonomy, without compounding it by querying G’s right to emotional and perceptual autonomy. Besides, as G said last night,
“If he was trying to help, why didn’t he talk to me? Why didn’t he look me in the face? Why didn’t he treat me like a real person?”