I found this graffiti today on the wall of the toilet I was locked in to do my ‘calming down’ checklist. More toilet graffiti should be this pure-hearted. In that moment, it was incredibly helpful and made me smile.
But why, oh why, was I locked in a toilet doing my ‘calming down’ checklist in the middle of the afternoon?
Two words: forced socialisation.
To be more specific, forced work socialisation.
Now, it’s not that I don’t get along with my colleagues – it’s not even that I won’t or don’t enjoy socialising with them (meals, leaving drinks and a whole Christmas party will attest to that not being the case). The problem lies in the forced element. The fact that it was not of my choosing, and I had no control over my own boundaries.
I knew that the day itself would be difficult. But I was prepared for that. I’m not altogether very good at sitting in a seat surrounded by 100 other people listening to presentations all day. I start to fidget. My brain starts to float away. I have to try incredibly hard to keep myself in one place, because I want to listen to what these people have to say. And by the end of it, I am absolutely exhausted.
To then be told that you have to stick around for another two hours (to finish at the time we would normally leave the office) to socialise with each other? My brain didn’t do nice things to me.
Luckily, after my inspirational toilet quote adventure, I found that people were in fact leaving early (they hadn’t said that we could, so maybe I had misinterpreted just how strict the ‘you must stay’ was – an unspoken vagueness and assumption of understanding that I shall henceforth call neurotypical-normism). So I scuttled out with them and drowned my anxiety in the new book smell at the local Waterstones.
As I’ve said before, it’s not that I can’t socialise – if I have my own agency in the situation, like having chosen who I’m socialising with or being free to leave when I hit my spoon barrier – but that forced socialisation is something that just sends me spinning. It would happen as a kid at family or friend gatherings, surrounded by people I may not have chosen to hang out with myself and unable to leave without my parents.
This would normally result in me getting into an argument, breaking down, or suddenly feeling sick and needing to be taken home.
I’m not suggesting that autistic people can’t socialise – I’m suggesting that neurotypical people, particularly in a work management scenario, need to be aware that neurodiverse people exist and that it’s not so easy for us to socialise on demand. We need a level of agency. And if, on that day, we need to leave without hanging around for drinks, then this should be available as a clear option and presented with understanding.
Of course, for some neurotypical people, socialising comes so naturally that anyone not seen to be doing it must need to have that rectified by forcing them into social situations. In my experience, stepping a little bit out of your comfort zone can be beneficial, but being dragged over with no self -determination often only feeds the anxiety surrounding that particular thing.
I came across this in my precious job working as a receptionist for an autism-related charity. We had recently undergone a slight shift in where teams were organised in the building, and one of these changes was that one team was now located on the top floor rather than than the first floor. On this particular day, a now-retired former employee came in to see some of her old workmates – upon being told that the the aforementioned team had moved, she threw her hands up in dramatic despair and decried the decision.
Because one of the members of staff on that team is autistic. And she was appalled that they now had their own space because it was ‘hard enough getting him to socialise when he wasn’t tucked away’.
Setting aside the horrific infantilisation inherent in the statement, what made my blood boil was the assumption that he absolutely must be made to socialise even when he clearly didn’t want to. In fact, I came to know him relatively well – he sent me an email on my birthday and just before Christmas – and I know that, by nature, he is inherently more comfortable having his own space to work in that doesn’t require him to use up so much emotional energy socialising with people.
That’s just who he is. He socialised when he wanted to. And when he didn’t, he was perfectly happy up in his office working and keeping himself to himself.
I just want it to be understood that what is seen as ‘good’ for neurotypicals is not necessarily good for autistic people or people who may struggle to socialise for other reasons (such as social anxiety). I know autistic people who are brilliant in social situations. I know autistic people who thrive in some situations and not in others. And I know autistic people who really struggle with all forms of socialisation. It’s just who we are. Many of us are happy with living our lives in the way that we know is best for us.
I know that people probably mean well when they create situations where you must socialise, but I ask that these people take a step back and listed to the autistic and otherwise neurodiverse people around them. We know our boundaries and our limits, and they should be heard, considered and respected.
Forcing us into socialising just serves to reinforce the anxiety that can surround these situations for us. And could make us more resistant to joining in the future. Which helps no one – and particularly doesn’t help us.
Going back to the lovely toilet-door graffiti I found amongst today’s debacle, I realise that I am still proud of myself. Even if I wasn’t able to socialise, I remembered to go to the toilet to go through my anxiety checklists.I remembered how to hold myself together. And I remembered how to calm myself down afterwards rather than just heading for home in a state.
So thank you, random toilet artist. I’m proud of me too.