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Let’s talk about ‘Quiet Zones’

I work in a city. Every day I am subject to at least an hour to an hour-and-a-half of crushing, crashing, banging commute. I do not live in said city, so I get to endure the fun of a train going into the city and then a lovely journey through the bowels of inner-city transport. No wonder I ensure I get to work at least thirty minutes early – if I didn’t have that window to catch my breath, eat some food and lose myself in crappy lighthearted YouTube clips, I would fall apart within thirty seconds of my shift starting.

And, throughout my almost two years of commuting in, doing a full day’s work, and then commuting back out again, nothing has rattled my gears quite like people being unbearably loud in the Quiet Zone. I feel as if there has long been a myth that the people wanting to use the Quiet Carriages are whiny, precious, stuck up little darlings; and, even if they are not seen as that, it is not seen as an absolute necessity in their lives. I don’t doubt that this describes a certain percentage of the people who adamantly argue for everyone to stop talking and turn off your phones. I myself have forgotten where I was, when on journeys with friends, and gaily engaged in flamboyant conversations before falling foul of the sshhhh brigade. And, in that moment, I resented them for their snappy tone and judgemental attitude.

It is only as I have started commuting, on a daily basis, with that commute bracketing a full day of often-quite-intense work, that I have come to appreciate just how important these areas are. And why, no matter how rude some of more puritannical enforcers can be, the ideals and rules of the zones should be respected.

It’s also important to bear in mind that the kinds of people who may benefit the most from these carriages – i.e. me and other autistic people who would rather not go into meltdown in rush hour on public transport thanks very much – are the people who are least likely to call you out for not abiding by the rules. I, certainly, have not confronted anyone making a racket in these environments. I have turned up my headphones to drown out the noise, drawn my cardigan tighter around me and huddled into a ball against the window, rocking back and forth to try and drown the noises out. I have closed my eyes and scrunched my hands into a fist to try and exert some of the frustration. But I have never confronted them.

I don’t know anyone, either on the spectrum or suffering from any of the multitudinous forms of anxiety, who would be able to stand and demand that the rules of the road be heeded. I am far more likely to either break down in public and garner the withering glances of my fellow, or keep it in until I reach my destination and explode all over the people I love the most. But I will not ask the person in the next row having a raucous old conversation about such-and-such (below the very very bright and clear sign) to stop. I just can’t bring myself to do it. The legs won’t walk that way, the head won’t turn that way, and the lips won’t move that way.

I wish I could. But it isn’t going to happen.

The fact of the matter is that Quiet Zones/Carriages (depending on which railway operator you use) are genuinely there for people who need them. The argument that some of them are mean to me when I talk too loudly is as ridiculous as the argument that we should cut all benefits and support for disabled people because a few people (usually non-disabled) are abusing the system. By making this comparison, I recognise that I am conceding to the fact that there will literally always be people who subscribe to this argument (have you seen the way this country treats people who need help?). But that doesn’t make the argument any less ridiculous.  And it doesn’t make it any less vile.

Yes, I know that JimBob down the road is claiming disability benefits even though he doesn’t actually have the gammy knee he says he does, but that does not mean that JimBob II who can’t work because of a longterm disability should have all his benefits cut and be left to starve/freeze. The argument makes no sense.

Likewise, just because some people are a little busybodying and hurt your feelings by telling you shut up in the Quiet Carriage, does not mean that you should be able to talk as loud as you like and consequently send the autistic woman next to you into a flailing meltdown.

I can guarantee you that the price of not being quiet in the Quiet Zone is a lot more annoying than the act of being quiet in the Quiet Zone. Unless you enjoy having the noises and the rocking and everything else that can come out if I’m pushed a little too far on a crowded train at the end of the busy day.

Quiet Zones/Carriages are not designed to be places of complete silence. You are allowed to carry on a conversation, as long as you do so quietly and with respect to the people around you in the carriage. Electronic devices should be set to vibrate rather ping (or, in my case, pi-KA-chu!). Don’t take calls (unless it’s an emergency – I mean, come on, we can understand that sometimes it’s unavoidable). There is no obligation to stop talking completely, throw your phone away, or to sew your mouth shut with one of those guns morticians use to keep the mouths of corpses shut.

The train company I use defines the Quiet Zones thusly:

 “If you’re looking to travel in peace and quiet look out for the carriages with the quiet zones stickers on them. One in four of our carriages are marked as a quiet zone and these politely ask customers to put their devices on silent, avoid phone calls, and keep conversations to a minimum so if you’re travelling in these carriages you can do so in peace and quiet.”

I mean, come on guys, gals and non-binary pals. That isn’t too hard. Just a few little tweaks to how you behave, and you could be absolutely saving the final few hours of my day. It’s not even in every carriage. 

I don’t want to go home and spend those precious hours with my family in a state of overloaded hysteria. I’ve worked hard, I’ve done well, I deserve to be able to enjoy those few moments when I can just sit down and be a part of that collective. I don’t want to be an interfering busybody lecturing on the rules of the train carriage, but I’d rather be that than the meltdown monster I become when it all gets too much. 

And it does get too much. The city is a hard place to be autistic. It’s why I don’t move there, as much as I love it. The smooth forty minutes between my final tube stop and my final mainline stop is the time I have to myself. To calm down. To process. And sometimes I need a Quiet Zone to do that. 

I want people to know that if you are in the Quiet Zone/Carriage, and you make an effort to keep the noise down, you are saving me from a potentially horrible evening. You’re allowing me time to come down, so that I can be a semi-functioning human being when I get home and see my family. And I am grateful for that. By making a few adjustments if you find yourself in that carriage, you are making the difference between people falling apart in the overload and people being able to process it (life, the universe, everything) properly. Isn’t that worth it? 

You may have noticed that I am having some emotions. It has been a difficult old week. And the incessant beeping of phones and shrieks of laughter – in the place they should not be – had me almost falling to pieces in my seat. So yes – this topic has stirred within me an emotion (or several). 

I feel like I should insert a deep, calming intake of breath at this point. And hug my dog. A lot. 

Basically, the crux of the matter, the message of this whole ridiculous waffle, can be condensed into a single plea to the world:

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