I eat nuts. Snickers bar, rocky road and trail mix are some of my favourite. I consume dairy products and love a drink of smooth and thick peanut butter milkshake. I’m not a big fan of seafood but I don’t mind good old-fashioned fish and chips any day. I’m glad I don’t suffer from nut or seafood allergies or lactose intolerance so I don’t have to give up any of these yummies in my diet and also the hassle of going through the ingredients of every thing I eat.
Rather unfortunately, I find myself highly allergic to the human species. My intolerance of people means I cannot enjoy or have to give up certain activities I enjoy doing. I love shopping, I love going to malls for that purpose. I am not into big fashion brands (can’t afford either) and may not keep up with the fashion trend but keeping in touch with my girly side, I love browsing through cosmetics, fashion accessories and clothes. Shopping is an activity me and my mum enjoy doing together and when I was living in Singapore, we went shopping together frequently. However, what started as a happy day out often ended up with me losing temper over small matters. After a few hours in the mall, I would become very grouchy, impatient and irritable, and then I will snap at my mum for saying or doing things which I felt did nothing to make the situation more pleasant (or even blame her for not saying or doing things to make the situation more pleasant). It is that constant conflict between wanting to spend further time at the malls with my mum but at the same time, the feeling that I had enough for the day and it was time to get out of the mall. Yes, I was and still am quite a bully. I never link the situation with autism but now that I know sensory sensitivity is a characteristic of autism and that I’m hyper-sensitive to noise, I do wonder if that explains my ‘bad’ behaviour (not that it is an excuse for behaving badly but knowing what triggers the behaviour makes a difference). Without the hindsight, it is simply a case of a wilful child throwing a tantrum and taking advantage of the fact that it will be readily forgiven.
I was in primary school when I first visited Australia on a tour with my family. That was around 1992. I was already drawn to the country and one of my reasons (albeit a rather shallow one) for liking it was how big and spacious their malls were compared to the ones in Singapore, and I wasn’t referring to the size of their shops but the walking space in the malls, in the stores between the aisles and shops along the streets. I remembered telling my mum I wished we had malls in Singapore that were as big and spacious. Without knowing anything about autism then, ‘space’ was already something I regarded highly.
A spacious environment = A comfortable environment
When I was a child, I hate going to food courts and hawker centres (open-air cooked food centres). Given they are such a central feature of Singapore culture, I know I will sound like a snob for saying food courts and hawker centres are un-classy but what I actually mean by that is they are loud and chaotic (As I grew up, I learn that ‘classy’ restaurants and places can be loud too. In essence, the more the people, the louder a place.) In the case of hawker centres, the experience was worse because of the humidity, some were dirty even. It was a bit overwhelming. Thinking about what to eat was a struggle with my mind trying to stay afloat while my head felt like it was going to drown in the mishmash of movement, noise and choking smells of different variety of food (local cuisine also tends to have a strong smell). It is like entering a room full of people and being overpowered by the multitude of fragrances and perfume scents. Perfume is nice in itself but when a hundred different smells and fragrances mix together, it turns bad. I know the hawker centre experience represents the melting pot of a multi-cultural multi-religion society and the best of multi-ethnic cuisine but unfortunately, it is more of a messy affair in my case. Oftentimes, I start to lose my patience after walking a few rounds and find nothing that suits my appetite. It is a little better now especially if I’m going somewhere familiar, if it is not particularly crowded and I know beforehand what I would like to eat.
I describe my childhood experiences based on hindsight. Knowing about autism could explain my behaviour. It could be autism, or not. I’m also trying to describe what it feels like when someone tries to question, challenge or invalidate my adverse reaction to crowd and insists I should do things, work and go out as ‘normal’ people do. If someone has an allergic reaction to nuts or dairy or any food or substance, you wouldn’t insist they take it, would you? Why would my autism or sensory sensitivity make a difference? Because it is invisible? Would you rather see me breakdown, lose my control, or even hurt someone (or myself) to prove I am indeed allergic? Some people may have more severe reactions to food allergies, other people’s allergies may be minor. I think it is not the business of an outsider to judge the severity of someone’s allergy for one simple reason: are you willing to accept responsibility and liability for your judgements and mis-judgements? If not, keep your comments to yourself. Whether or not to accept the risk that flows from partaking in the food or activity is a question better left to the person involved. People with invisible illness face enough stigma as it is, they don’t need another pair of judgmental eyes. I understand that given human nature, it is impossible to avoid forming judgments so what I’m saying here is keep these to yourself. Questions are ok but don’t ask questions with the intent to challenge. Ask with the intent to feel for yourself what it is like to be in the other person’s shoes. My plea to all is less judgment, more empathy. (Some would recognise the irony. People with autism are accused of lacking in empathy when the fact is they don’t get much empathy from others too).