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Never judge someone without knowing the whole story

14 September 2020

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On Monday 17th of February, my colleague at Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect) and I travelled to Launceston for an environmental assessment of the airport. This piece of work was on a tight deadline and forms part of the Autism friendly team’s larger work introducing a hidden disabilities lanyard program to many major airports in the country.

Airports and flying (although a necessary part of my role) are a major source of stress for me and require me to use a lot of coping strategies simultaneously to function through all the processes and sensory issues. This trip was complicated by the fact that there are limited options for direct flights from Sydney to Launceston (and none which got us there in time for our consultation) so we were required to take 2 planes each way with a changeover in Melbourne.

Environmental assessments take a lot out of me, I essentially have to subject myself to all of the overwhelming elements of an environment to provide feedback to others so that modifications and other resources can be developed. I do this proudly and gladly so that other members of the Autistic community can have an experience that is better suited to their needs (and I secretly love being the one who is a driving force for instigating change, even if it means wiping myself out to do so)

The day went well, all of my strategies firmly in place and I was feeling great and ready to work. We completed the assessment and had a wonderful meeting with our contacts to provide feedback and all was going well….. until the trip home.

I was understandably feeling a bit sensory and emotionally worn out and was taking it easy. I had my noise cancelling headphones going, stim toys in hand and was using a notepad on my phone for communication as I wasn’t able to communicate well verbally at the time.

We arranged my pre-boarding and got on the first flight from Launceston to Melbourne, no problems. Upon landing in Melbourne we had a short turn around so I stopped by the bathroom before boarding our next flight. And here is where things went downhill and fast…

I always ALWAYS wear noise cancelling headphones in public bathrooms due to the extremely overwhelming effect of electric hand-dryers (or as I call them scream machines from hell!) Whilst washing my hands, a woman who did not know me decided to tear my headphones from my head from behind and yell at me about the “youth of today” having no social skills or social etiquette.

I would like you to picture this scenario for a moment. An autistic adult, already suffering from moderate levels of social, emotional and sensory exhaustion faced with an aggressively yelling random person who had taken away an essential coping strategy and also touched me without permission and not one but TWO scream machines from hell going! It took everything I had to hold off the meltdown and get myself back to my colleague, who I could rely on to help me manage all of the boiling emotions and overwhelm (its why I never travel alone) and to advocate for my needs for pre-boarding for the next flight which was about to board.

The Qantas staff were amazing! Unfortunately in their well-meaning rush to get me to a safe quiet place on the plane they forgot to disarm the alarm on the door before opening it, and that was the final breaking point…. Queue the meltdown I had been working so hard to hold off!

Whilst I did recover somewhat on the flight home, I would not have been in that state if it had not been for the member of the public making assumptions that I was an anti-social youth, rather than an autistic person using an essential coping strategy to navigate a world that wasn’t built for me.

When I first saw the new advertising campaign by Amaze, and their tag line “Change your reaction, change you action” I have to admit to being underwhelmed. I felt like they were missing so much essential information. However this one experience during the course of my work changed my opinion in a big way and I felt the need to share it.

In the words of Amaze… if she had changed her reaction to me wearing headphones she would have been able to change her action, that of removing my headphones physically and I could have been able to complete my already long and exhausting day without the meltdown.

It really drives home to me the importance of what Aspect does (especially the Autism friendly team) to advocate for environments that better include and meet the needs of autistic people but also emphasises the need for every one of us to educate and advocate within all our communities. Only by educating the public can we reduce these incidents and improve the lives of Autistic people. I encourage you to advocate to your communities to change their reactions, to change their actions!

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