Dear Susan Boyle,
To have a high public profile where your movements and vulnerabilities are recorded must be so difficult to handle. It was with sadness we read firstly of your meltdown at Heathrow Airport and then later, a report that you felt the need to apologize. A meltdown is the result of an unmet need and can leave us feeling very drained and (unjustified) remorse, embarrassment and upset. This is very different from an outburst, a tantrum, of which we have some level of control to manage and may need to reflect and apologize.
Autistic people live in a world not designed for how we experience it, for the way we relate to others and the way we naturally communicate. Every time we walk outside our door, we make reasonable adjustments for others without autism, who are in the majority. The negative messages we receive are that non-autistic people are the skilled communicators, that they are the ones who have empathy and unfortunately they, as the majority, hold the power to make the decisions to include us and about the policies that affect us. Autistic rights, our way of being, are seldom recognized — often unless we are male children with the voices of non-autistic parents and parent-led charities speaking over us and for us. As you experienced, this world we often collide with has little understanding of autism as it manifests in an adult female form. As a woman with special needs managing these situations alone, it can be frightening.
Many autistic people have been to airports. The bright fluorescent lights that can blind us. The anticipation of where we are going and the change that trip means to our usual routines. The passing through security, requiring undressing of shoes, belts, coats and the brief separation from the electronic gadgets that are our connection to our online communities and peer support networks. The body contact and touch of security people. The anxious wait, checking electronic boards to know which gate our plane will depart from and the inevitable rush of people and their bags to jostle for position in lines. The enclosed space of an airplane and the women who surely must have bathed in perfume from the way it fills our senses and turns our stomachs. The closeness of strange males near us, which for many of us, can be a trigger to incidents from the past.
Susan, you found yourself in a situation where your system was assaulted by an onslaught of stimuli too overwhelming to process and manage alone — a feeling your autistic peers know all too well. For some of us, we silently bear it, we shut down. For some of us, we panic and look for ways to escape. For some of us, we get mouthy, and that is seen to be aggressive and rude.
I hope that the advisors around you understand that an apology as a form of damage control is not warranted. You cannot help the way you are. It is not a choice, it is how we as autistic people are programmed. Buildings and airports and public places do have a choice, they can decide if their spaces will be inclusive of us or not. Your experience has the potential to teach Heathrow Airport to do better by you and by the autistic people that pass through their terminals.
If you feel you need to apologize, I hope you have loving support around you. I hope those people are telling you, you did the best you could do in that moment. That you are OK. That they will help you to identify your own triggers so future distress can be minimized. We live in hope to see examples of the empathy and great communication skills of the non-autistic world while waiting for them to meet us at least half way. Because having autism, and having your needs unmet, is not a reason to write a letter of apology.
Loving support from,
Your friends at Autism Women Matter
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