Since New Zealand’s lockdown has started easing and people can (and often, have to) start venturing outside again I have noticed a lot of friends feeling anxious in public, overwhelmed by the crowds, and hyper aware of the people around them. Existing in public is just a much harder experience for a lot of people than it used to be. Some of that is likely due to anxiety around the actual Covid-19 epidemic itself, but for some people another component seems to be becoming less used to the actual sensory experience involved, and difficulty added by the new social rules and expectations that suddenly exist.
Well, I can’t really help with the first part – the totally reasonable anxiety that comes from existing in a global pandemic – but that second one, feeling awkward and hyperaware of yourself and everyone else in public places while trying to navigate rules that you’re not quite used to yet – hey, that’s basically my life as an autistic person! I never feel comfortable in public, and I am always trying to consciously figure out what the rules are doing, because I sure as shit don’t have any sort of intuitive sense of them. So from one chronically awkward person to the newly-awkward, here are some tips I use for navigating the world when the world is loud and overwhelming.
Occupy your senses and your nervous energy
Autism is a condition that comes with sensory processing issues, and some of the ways we cope with this are seen in stereotypes of autism – think big headphones or earmuffs, fidget toys, and repetitive movements. People with ADHD or other neurodiversities will often employ some of these as well, along with the entire rest of the human population – fidgeting, listening to music, humming, tapping. These can all help people focus, burn off extra energy, or deal with sensory information, it’s just usually a bit less obvious or a bit more socially acceptable than the ways autistic people might sometimes cope.
But hey, you’re not used to crowds any more, and suddenly just being out in public might be a whole lot more overwhelming than you remember. If that’s the case for you, it might be time to pay some conscious attention to your senses and the ways you can occupy them to avoid getting overwhelmed by the input that would otherwise be flooding in.
Figuring out what works for you personally might involve some trial and error – sensory heaven for one person can be hell for another, and work rules or safety reasons can limit the sorts of things you are able to wear and do. In general you have two main options for dealing with the senses that bother you – trying to reduce outside input, or actively using input to focus your senses on something pleasant – or at least something tolerable.
Reducing outside input can be things like wearing gloves if you don’t like some textures, wearing sunglasses to dim bright lights (who cares if you wear them indoors? We’re basically living in a cyberpunk novel anyway), or using earplugs, earmuffs, or noise isolating headphones to reduce noise (specifically the headphones if you’re feeling self conscious). Pre-Covid it might have been hard to block out smells without being obvious, but now, no one is going to look twice if you’re wearing some sort of mask.
Sometimes blocking stuff out isn’t enough, and even though it might seem counterintuitive to add more input to your already overwhelmed brain, it can help to overpower the less pleasant input or give you something to focus on. Music, podcasts, or white noise and rain sounds (which you can download from podcast apps for free) can work wonders to drown out the fifty things vying for your attention (just, you know, keep an eye out for the things that actually require your attention, like traffic). Chewing gum can give you a taste to focus on and help with that jaw tension, and fidgeting – tapping, playing with jewellery, playing with a pen, whatever works for you – can help burn off a bit of nervous tension if you need to. Getting a simple/mindless game or app on your phone can give you something to play around with as well and people will just think you’re an anti-social millennial stuck to your screen rather than a shambling wreck of a human who’s struggling not to fall apart. Ha! You fooled them!
Go in with a plan
I don’t just mean take a shopping list to the supermarket. If you’re feeling anxious, or you find yourself mind-blanking as soon as you’re in public, then plan as much of your journey as you need to, which may be a lot more than you would need to under “normal” circumstances. This planning can just be internal – picturing the route you’re going to take when you get off the bus – or it can be physical – a list of all the shops you need to visit at the mall and why, for example. Look up bus timetables (including backups if you miss the first one) and opening hours in advance. If you need to endure the horrors of shopping in a physical store, see if you can look up their stock online and figure out what you need ahead of time, or at least as much detail as you can, so you know what to look for (eg “flannel shirts in my size” or “a picture book for a two year old by a New Zealand author” instead of “clothes and a present for my niece.”)
Basically, get as detailed as you need. If you love to go on long trips to the mall where you pick things out spontaneously, then you do you, you colossal weirdo. But if meeting a friend for lunch is making you anxious, look up the menu in advance and decide what you want to order – it’s one less thing you need to think about at the time and picturing what you’re doing in advance can help it become less nebulous. The idea is to deal with as much of the mental load as you can before you leave the house so you have less you need to worry about when you do.
Don’t go out hungry
Or thirsty, or with an untreated headache. Sometimes this is impossible to avoid, of course, but control those negative things vying for your energy that you can, so you have more energy in the tank to deal with the things you can’t. Even if you’re meeting someone for lunch try to avoid getting on the bus absolutely starving. From experience – your friends will also thank you for it, you hangry-ass motherfucker.
Bathrooms are your friend – find moments of quiet
Alright you’ve gone in fed and prepared, plan of attack on hand and epic music playing in your giant headphones and…. You still freak out. There’s just a lot going on, okay? It happens.
If you’re, say, second to the front in a one hour queue, it might be worth trying to tough it out so you don’t have to come back. But if you’re not, if you’re in a position where you are able to get out of there – it’s totally fine to just get out of there. Do that.
Sometimes you might just need a breather. Bathroom stalls are great for being a moment of solitude in busy places. Or go outside if you need to. Sit in your car if it’s nearby. Find a quiet place like a library or a non-crowded cafe. Close your eyes, breathe, chill. Go back in when you’re ready – even if that’s not today.
If you can’t get to a completely isolated area or public bathroom surfaces squick you out, then just find a seat or a wall somewhere that isn’t right in the middle of where people seem to be walking and whip out your book or a phone. Even if you aren’t actually reading/messaging anyone, pretend to – it gives you something to look at that isn’t crowds of people, and it helps create a barrier between you and the world.
Another option, if it’s not rush hour traffic and you have a monthly pass or can spare the bus fare, is to jump on a bus or a train and just ride it for a bit. Then ride it back. Watching the scenery go by can be relaxing, and if the bus isn’t crowded you can get your own little pocket of space for a while.
Be selective with your company
Before you start deleting everyone off social media, I mean this in a moment-by-moment sense. Pay attention to how you feel when you’re shopping/out with people versus when you aren’t. Does going clothes shopping with a friend provide an extra feeling of stability or are they just one more thing to focus on when you’re already overwhelmed? Do you like to be silent and alone on public transport, or do you need the company? Maybe some friends with compatible communication styles and energy levels will be relaxing to travel with, and others will stress you out, even if you usually enjoy their company.
Figure out what works for you and, where possible, see if you can set up your trips out to work with your needs. If you get stressed shopping with other people, then that’s probably something you should do by yourself. If you prefer a quiet moment on the bus, arrange to meet people at places rather than travelling together. Sometimes this might require asking your friends to accommodate you (“can you come to the pharmacy with me? I need the support” or “I don’t want to go to a mall, can we do something else instead?”). Just be direct about what you need and be willing to accept no or to listen to what your friends need as well. This can sometimes come across as weird or awkward but I dunno, maybe we should normalise communicating directly about things we need?
Find out what the rules are
A friend of mine told me of her difficulty being out during level two of the lockdown: “I felt like I was in the wrong place all the time and in everyone’s way and like people were mad at me.” This succinctly describes my everyday life. A stereotype of autism is that you’re completely unaware of social rules and also don’t care about them, but for some it’s much more constant awkwardness, trying to manually figure out what it is we are supposed to be doing and consciously performing all the right actions.
I don’t say this to diminish my friend’s experience – it’s just an interesting way in which my awkward austistic self is a little bit more prepared for these extra social rules than some of my friends. You see, each level of the lockdown has something that pre-covid life lacked, and that is signposted rules of what you’re supposed to do. The government has its own rules online, and most shops and public places let you know what’s expected on their websites and on signs in shops themselves. This is like autistic heaven honestly – yes please give me micro descriptions of how I am supposed to act in public, I don’t know otherwise.
Except. People often don’t follow those rules, so it’s easy to end up second guessing yourself and feeling awkward anyway. Or sometimes we might just not see where the line starts and accidentally end up pushing in. At least, that’s what better have been going on, woman who walked in front of me at the dairy.
I don’t really have any useful tips on how to make other people follow rules. All I can recommend is trying to make sure you find out what they are so at least you know you’re right. This just means paying a bit of active attention to surroundings whether that’s actual sign posts or scanning for where the queues are. I don’t know how to feel less awkward about it, I mostly just get through life trying to pay enough attention to avoid doing anything hideously embarrassing. But sometimes you might, which brings me to my final point.
It’s okay to ask, it’s okay to be wrong
Shit is weird, the rules are different, and not everyone is following them anyway. We’re anxious and confused and if we’re not at our best right now that’s pretty understandable. So if you’re really freaking out about doing the wrong thing, then ask someone who works there – from a polite distance. Pay attention to your own personal space and signs of discomfort in those you are talking to – if someone keeps stepping away from you, maybe stop approaching, even if it’s not the distance you normally consider polite.
And if you are wrong, then that’s okay. Just apologise, move on, and don’t yell at the poor retail worker who had to tell you – they’re stuck out here.