I was probably about fourteen by the time I witnessed a serious autistic meltdown. That might sound strange, seeing as I’m on the spectrum myself, until you realize that my condition is very high-functioning, meaning (in my case) that I appear to exhibit less signs of my condition than somebody who is low-functioning.
It was at secondary school, then, that I met the first person I had ever known who was outwardly autistic. Autism is an invisible condition and it does not have a ‘look’, nor does everybody on the spectrum share the same traits. Nevertheless this individual displayed a number of the telltale signs that indicated he was on the spectrum: he spent almost all of his free time alone, spoke in a very monotone voice and had a number of unusual, often obsessive interests that some might consider offbeat or even immature. I noticed this, and, needless to say, less sympathetic individuals noticed it too.
I will always remember the day it happened. It was the height of summer, the last day of term before the holidays. The school bus was packed; everybody was going home and many of them were bringing their friends home too.
I don’t know why the young man in question was late to the bus, but unfortunately for him, he was. He always sat alone on the bus in a seat by the window and didn’t like it when somebody sat in the seat next to him. That, I now realize, was his routine. Following exactly the same established routine on a daily basis is often crucial for those on the spectrum. It is necessary for them if they are to feel comfortable.
Sometimes I would sit next to the young man in question and talk to him because I recognized a kindred spirit. I also wanted to show him that I cared, as few others ever seemed to talk to him. I never discussed autism with him, or anything else that I thought might distress him; we only talked about the things I knew he was interested in. I always got the feeling, however, that he would have preferred to be left alone and I respected that.
Back to the day it happened. On this particular occasion all the window seats were taken, meaning that the only available ones were end seats next to other people. I remember feeling uncomfortable myself whenever I had to ask somebody if the seat next to them was free and whether I could sit there. It literally made my skin crawl. I could see from the moment he stepped onto the bus that he was intimidated by the mass of people and the lack of seats. I would have offered him a place if I myself had not been sitting next to somebody else (and a stranger at that).
Eventually, thank heavens, somebody did offer him a place; but that was after the meltdown.
Yes, he had a meltdown. It was a big one.
It was as if he were a kettle waiting to boil, or a volcano building in pressure before an eruption. His whole body started to shake and he stood rooted to the spot. Soon the nerves were replaced by anger and he began to wail furiously, again and again. By the time he had finished it was as if minutes had passed, though in fact the whole incident was over in the space of around thirty seconds.
Throughout, I had sat there with my head in my hands, waiting for it to end. Everybody else, almost without exception, drowned the poor boy in a chorus of laughter. I’m ashamed to say that I did nothing, worried about what would happen to me if I spoke up. I also knew that speaking to him about what happened would probably upset him further; I hope that in some way I am giving something back to others on the spectrum in the form of this blog.