Living in a Box

So, this blog has been on holiday.  Quite a long holiday, really.  I was going to tell you all the reasons why, but when I sat down to write them out, I realised that they were really quite tedious (Christmas, blah; autistic inertia, blah; lost yet another house cleaner, blah blah blah).  I figure that if I am bored at the thought of typing them out, you will certainly be bored reading them.  So let’s move on.

Let’s move on here:

Hayward Quad

When I was a first year undergraduate, a few years (ahem, decades) ago, this is where I lived.  Not in the lovely 19th Century brick-built part of the College which you can just see reflected in the windows, but in this Seventies concrete and glass monster, nicknamed “the Goldfish Bowl.”  Each room had one wall entirely made out of glass (two, if you were particularly unlucky), which sounds like cutting-edge design on paper, but in reality was a bit of a nightmare.  The standard-issue blinds were forever snagging or breaking, and they had the unique quality of being translucent, so if you didn’t want to put on a shadow puppet display for the entire College, you had to get undressed in the dark.  The rooms were – naturally – too hot in summer and too cold in winter, and you could hear literally everything going on outside.  When you consider that the large circular spaceship-like building at the front of the photo is the College bar, you start to realise that living in this particular block wasn’t always a lot of fun.  This is presumably why it was always reserved for first years.

I haven’t thought about this place for years, but I was reminded of it by this story on the BBC, which dates from November but appeared on my Facebook feed today. A supermarket worker lived inside a glass box in her supermarket for 100 hours to raise money or awareness or something for – and I quote – “people that have got autism.”  There’s a video on the BBC website where she talks about it, but you might not be able to access it if you’re outside the UK.  If so, then count yourself lucky; I had three attempts before I could watch it all the way through, because it made me so angry.

Now, I don’t want to appear curmudgeonly, because no doubt this woman had the best of intentions; she decided to pull this fundraising stunt after seeing a child having a meltdown in the supermarket and being shocked that people were tutting and being judgemental.  But she seems to have hit upon the idea of living in a glass box because it’s isolating.  This, she tells us, is “how an autistic child feels, you know, on a day to day basis.”  Laying aside the question of how she can possibly know how an autistic child feels (presuming, indeed, that all autistic children feel the same way as each other all the time), this is quite an interesting insight into how non-autistic people seem to view autism.  Clearly, she believes that the primary and worst experience of being autistic is social isolation.

Well, I’ve had my fair share of meltdowns, but I can honestly say that none of them have been caused by a feeling of isolation.  Fluorescent lighting, yes.  Vibrations from the supermarket trolley, yes.  Morrisons having moved the Monster Munch – to my shame, yes.  But isolation?  Really not.  Generally speaking, if I’m heading towards overload, a bit of isolation makes things better, not worse.

If she really wanted to know what it might be like to be autistic, she could have installed strobe lighting in her glass box, doused the walls with a mixture of bleach, perfume and vomit and then had someone play the 1812 Overture at her through loudspeakers whilst attacking the floor with a pneumatic drill.  That might have given her some idea of why autistic people sometimes melt down in supermarkets.

There is only one way in which I can imagine that living in a glass box in a supermarket is anything like being autistic, and it is the exact opposite of isolation.  Like living in the College ‘Goldfish Bowl,’ it’s the sense that you can never wholly get away from the world, with all its overpowering sights, smells and sounds.  Added to that is the sense (perhaps more applicable to autistic adults than children) that you are always on display, always having to ‘pass.’  In public, at work, sometimes even at home, it’s almost impossible to let your guard down, relax and be your own autistic self.

The delicious irony to this whole news story is that the box woman was supported in her efforts by the mum of a five-year-old autistic child “with a lot of sensory issues.” (Show me an autistic person who doesn’t have a lot of sensory issues….)  With the money raised, this mum was able to buy her son some sensory stuff.  One piece of equipment in particular has, she reported, completely improved her son’s quality of life.  What was it? I hear you cry.

It was this:

dark den

Apparently living in a box isn’t always such a bad thing after all.


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