Humming softly, I try to smile but I cannot feel my face. In fact, I cannot feel my feet either. As the noise and colors surrounding me escalates, I realize I have lost touch with my entire physical body. What was mild anxiety threatens to spiral into panic.
Instinctively, my body shies away from the people about me. My arms draw in. I look down, briefly close my eyes. A prayer bursts through as I struggle to maintain a sense of self-control. I have no idea if this is a meltdown or a shutdown moment. I back up to a nearby wall. My head thumps softly against it. I can feel that. And I can tell it is not enough. I rub my hands together; squeeze my fingers one at a time, still softly humming.
A song evolves. I hear it internally. I can almost grasp it. If I can attach a pattern, a meaning to my attempt to calm, I know from long experience that I can build reason back into the present.
I try to not whine in my thoughts. “Why did I come to this party? I want to go home. I want to hide. I want to leave. I am crazy-stupid-foolish-lost-dumb for coming. I KNOW I am not good in crowds.” I know that whining inside makes re-alignment much more challenging. Focus on finding the music, the familiar, and plan to breathe. Conscious attention to breathing aids in sensory overload moments.
The song does not quite manage to begin the process. I force my hands down to my sides. Body, mind, mind, body, colors, noises, swirling movements! I begin to wiggle my fingers. I close my eyes, which brings a bit more calm. I shake my hands, struggling to keep them low so no one sees my hands flapping. I get raised eyebrows and pursed lips with my hands squirming.
I am still humming softly. YES! I recognize this melody! It is Pachabel’s Canon in D! The gentle head bangs are now in sync with the slow rhythm of the music. Hands still want to flap wildly and broadly. So I tap my feet.
I reach down and grasp the fabric of my skirt. It is soft, comforting. Tension slowly leaves my shoulders, and my neck—and I hope my face.
As I regain sensations at near normal levels, I am aware this is hard work. This dogged determination to be sociable is exhausting. I look up, scanning the room for the single most important item I need. The doorway! As I prepare to stroll across the meeting room a significant thought arises: I should say good-bye to my hosts. I shut my eyes yet again, trying to recall what they were wearing, what they looked like, and imagine where in this crowd they might be. There they are, standing in a cluster near the buffet table. As I cross the room I barely hear colleagues murmuring “Great talk, CarolAnn,” or “That was awesome. Thank you for sharing.” I keep trying to find those smile muscles! The intensity of this experience is giving birth to a massive headache now.
I make it. I whisper to my hosts that I need to leave. They smile; I think they mutter an appropriate response. Oh, it is so complicated to navigate the room. I make it to the hallway. I take aim at the exit, the horrid revolving doors. I fumble for the sunglasses I need, which are the darkest I could buy, yet they still do not adequately soften the sunlight.
I make it to the car. Start the engine. Slam the radio buttons off, the air-conditioning fan on high, and grab the animal, the Silly Putty, the cold facecloth, and the water bottle. This is my emergency kit. I take out photographs of my family and some cards given to me by dear friends. I have an epiphany. I can drive home in safety now. My body no longer rules my brain. My brain no longer demands random attention. I remember my name: I am CaronJoy. I am a person first.
As I drive away from the autism conference I think of all the children in schools and programs, struggling all day to maintain a semblance of control, a degree of interaction that barely keeps them together until they arrive home to their own melt downs, shut downs, and episodes.
And I whisper a little prayer for them.