There was due to be a city-wide strike on the London Underground system today. Luckily, it was called off at the last minute due to some eleventh hour breakthroughs in the discussion between unions and bosses.
I say lucky for several reasons. The main reason being, of course, that hopefully some headway has been made in solving the initial complaints of the staff. As someone who travels on the Underground every day, I have seen the kind of abuse that these people face, and the worsening understaffing that is making it even more dangerous and difficult to do the job they are probablly not paid a huge amount to do anyway. No matter how difficult a strike such as this makes my life, they are the backbone of the fight for workers rights and I salute and support every dammed one of them.
But this brings us to another reason why the reaching of some kind of agreement is lucky. Because London transport strikes are hard enough on your average City worker, let alone an autistic person.
My first experience of such a strike was a little over a year ago, and although I had done some planning beforehand, nothing prepared me for what it was actually like. Nothing prepared me from being caught in a sea of people spreading fifteen-twenty deep clamouring to get through the tiny bus doors. Nothing prepared me for people shouting and swearing and hammering their fists on the doors of buses desperately trying to get away. I wasn’t prepared for the wails of fear that escaped my chest when I couldn’t move my arms well enough to call my mum, nor the gushing panic of my hyperventilation as it became too loud, too close, and as people looked at my jerking sobs with amusement/judgement/derision and yet did nothing to help me out of the crush, instead pressing closer, their proximity like needles in my skin, and an elbow in my side to make sure they got that last place on the bus instead of me.
It was a crushing, overpopulated corner of hell, and, when I finally got home that evening and began to piece my broken thoughts together, I promised myself I would never go into the situation again unarmed.
Knowing that the strike was imminent, this time I sat down and set a series of steps in place. I’d like to share them with you here, along with some explanations, in the hope that they will be useful to someone in a similar situation (whether it be a strike or some other transport related delay) one day.
- If you can, walk it – whilst I know it might not be possible in some situations (whether it be the distance, or being physically unable to do it), if it is possible, work out a walking route rather than try and take public transport. Public transport on days like this, whichever route you take, is going to be horrible. Having a route to walk ensures that you don’t even have to think about throwing yourself onto that particular fire. Knowing that you can avoid that can, in itself, bring the stress of the whole experience down. Make sure your phone, or MP3 player, is fully charged so you have access to some good walking music. And no matter what the weather, make sure you have a hat, a scarf, something warm, or an umbrella.
- Know your route – whether you can walk, or your having to take alternative public transport, make sure that you know the route you are taking inside and out. If you would normally follow it on your phone, make sure you have it written down somewhere as well – in my first experience, so many people were trying to access the internet at the same time that I could not connect to get directions. If written instructions and a map work for you, Google Maps has an option to print out a route with both of these. It’s also a good idea to have information on an alternative, just in case something happens to block your chosen route.
- Find a way to communicate with someone – if you can’t change to a walking route, or if something unexpected happens, then the best thing to do is to ask for help from someone working on the transport line. Let them know that you are disabled, you need to use public transport, but you need some help (whether it be guiding you to the bus to make sure you get on safely, or giving you a reasonable alternative). This is something I struggle with, and have come up with some ways to make sure I say the right thing. I carry an Autism Alert Card, which I show to people to let them know straight away that I’m autistic and I need their help. You may want to script, or write out, what you are going to say – this allows you to read it aloud to the person so you don’t mess it up, or allows you to pass it to them to read if you can’t talk. It may also be worth downloading the Emergency Chat app, which helps you to let people know that you are struggling to speak, and then takes you to simple chat system that allows you to communicate.
- Give yourself the tools to stim – I carry with several small items that allow me to stim in situations where I’m in crisis. At the moment, I carry with me a fidget spinner, a fidget cube, a chewy necklace from the amazing Sensory Oojamabobs, and a soft toy should the situation get very dire. The first two can fit in my pocket, the second hangs around my neck and can be tucked out of sight if not being used, and the fourth sits at the top of my bag. I also wear a scarf, which, as well as keeping me warm, acts as a weighted comfort and something I can fiddle with or use to wrap around my head should things become too much. It took me a long time of playing around with different things to find an arsenal that was effective, and I’m always open to trying something new – don’t be afraid to try things that you think could work at home before putting them to use outside.
- Meditate – this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s something new that I’m trying and it seems to be helping me so far. I’m currently using the Stop, Breathe and Think app, which, as well as talking you through each meditation, allows you to put in your emotions and mood in order to get the right session to bring you to a better place. Be aware, there are extras on here that you do have to purchase, such as the ‘going to sleep’ meditation – there are other apps available, so have a look around. Although it ideally states you should be sitting down, I’ve done these standing on packed tube trains, sitting at my desk, and even once whilst walking in a particularly crowded space. It really helps me focus, and it’s worth giving it a try.
- Do whatever you need to do to block things out – although you need to remain aware enough to be safe, do whatever you need to do to cut out the background noise that makes these situations so stressful. I have blue-tooth headphones with a noise cancelling feature, which I’ve found serve to cut out some background noise, produce a nice weighted sensory experience on my head, and also allow me to put on music, audiobooks or soundscapes to distract me from the crowds. A good app to look at is the myNoise app, as it allows you to download lots of different soundscapes (from cats purring, waves on the beach, streams in caves and atonal distortion) and then adjust them to fit what you need. You can get access to the whole lot of for less than £10, and I truly believe this one is worth it.
- 4-7-8 breathing technique – I’m including this because it’s incredibly simple, and it works for me. If you can, make sure you are sitting or standing up straight. Breathe in deeply through your nose for four seconds, filling your diaphragm rather than your chest; hold it for seven seconds; and then slowly exhale through your mouth for eight seconds. It’s a permanent solution, but it’s a simple, quick trick to do in the spur of the moment, if you can feel your breathing quickening and your anxiety rising and you need a way to keep it at bay. There’s a really nice little tutorial on it here.
- Don’t worry about being late – one of the big anxiety factors for me in these situations is the fear of being late to work. If you can text your colleagues, or friends (depending on why you are travelling) to let them know you may be running late, do that – if you can’t, make sure you have the tools already in place to explain when you get there (see communication ideas above), so that you don’t have to stress about what you are going to say. Remember that you are the main priority, and you can get to where you need to be in your own time. Your friends can wait a little. Your colleagues are probably also struggling to get in. If there are transport network problems, any connecting transport you need to get will be aware of this, and will be understanding (although, if you know there are going to be transport issues, allow yourself some extra time to minimise stress as much as possible). If you need to pop into a shop, or a cafe, and take a breather, do whatever it takes to keep yourself as well as possible.
- And, finally, stay at home if you need to – if you’ve looked through everything, and there is simply no way that you feel you can navigate the journey without having a crisis, do not be afraid to request to stay at home that day. If you are working, contact your manager beforehand; if it’s a pre-planned strike or engineering works, preferably a day in advance. Explain your difficulties, using the previous communication techniques if you need to. This, of course, depends on if you have disclosed your autism to your company. If you have disclosed, and you face difficulties from your employer, it may be worth speaking to HR, or giving permission for a family member or appropriate advocate to speak to HR for you. If you haven’t, it may be more difficult. I haven’t been in this situation myself, but this article might be helpful in terms of deciding whether or not to disclose. Remember – if you have to go through something of high anxiety in order to get into work, you may not have any spoons left by the time you get in, and will therefore be unproductive. Take care of yourself in the best way you can, even if that means being a little selfish.
As I’ve said, these are my own personal strategies that I have put in place in response to a situation like this. The wonderful, yet challenging, thing about autism and autism advice is that there is no one-size fits all solution to any of the issues we face. However, if just one thing on this list is able to help anyone in even the tiniest of ways, it will have been absolutely worth it.
Please do let me know if this is helpful, as I am very keen to do more of these types of post in the future.