A Day in the Life of...
Don't Be AlarmedMarch 2006
by Deborah Lipsky
Life is full of surprises, and surprises aren't well received by many autistic individuals like me. As many of you know I am traveling to various states doing an 8-hour seminar on autism and intervention strategies. My friend Will always tells me, "There is a lesson in everything." So I guess the moral of this story is,"Don't be alarmed."
After a successful morning of presenting in Richmond, Virginia, I decided to end the morning session with the subject of unpredictability and novel situations that cause havoc to an autistic individual. I would pick up with meltdowns after lunch.
I was feeling like a professional. People were in awe of my presenting style. I had the honor of having lunch with some of them in the restaurant inside the hotel. The dining room was full due to another presentation going on in the same hotel. There was a lot of noise all around that sounded to me like a swarming beehive. Still I decided to keep my composure and show my guests that I am an autistic who can function in such an environment. It was hard to focus on any one conversation because all I heard was "blah blah blah". I had learned to pretend to pay attention when the noises became a sensory issue by every now and then interjecting a saying like "uh huh", or "that's interesting". I really was feeling in control thinking "what possibly could go wrong." Then it happened.... the unpredictable.
I was half way through munching on my cheeseburger when, for no apparent reason other than to ruin my day, the hotel fire alarm went off. Blinding strobe lights and deafening sirens were all around me. It felt like lightening bolts striking everywhere and the trumpeting of heavenly horns. My initial thought was, "Oh, my God, it is the second coming of Jesus Christ". My second thought was, "Does this mean I have to leave a big tip for the waitress or do I even have to pay my bill, or is even such a thought going to make me lose brownie points with God?"
After processing that, which took less than 2 seconds, I realized it wasn't the second coming after all. Those at the table with me had the expression of deer caught in the headlights. Not wanting to come across as socially inappropriate [Emily Post would of have been proud] I stopped momentarily and politely excused myself from the dinner table citing my reason for such a quick exit [which should have been obvious] before running out of the room. What I find amazing is that I was the only one who ran out of the room other than my friend who ran after me. Folks, it was a fire alarm! When it sounds it usually means there may be a fire. I was taught to always exit a building when the alarm went off, and right now I had a valid reason for running away from the sensory stressors at lunch. I was the only one who did the right thing. All the other people remained seated because they didn't smell smoke. I could imagine the CNN headlines now, "Two survivors of hotel fire because they knew enough to exit the building when the fire alarms sounded."
No matter which way I turned there were strobe lights and sirens everywhere even, in the bathrooms spaced at about 20 feet apart. I felt like a cornered animal being consumed by overwhelming fear. It so happened that I began to escalate and walk in tight circles verbalizing my thoughts to try to stay in control right in front of the hotel desk with about 4 hotel staff staring at me. Now I wonder why autistic people have the reputation of saying socially inappropriate responses when neurotypicals come up with the most inappropriate questions of all. A staff member came up to me and asked,"Mam, is there a problem?" I am twirling around in tight circles like a demented ballerina, repeating myself like a broken record, sirens and lights are deafening, and he wonders if there is a problem? I wanted to say, "duh", but all that escaped my lips was, "no" to which he just walked away. Luckily for me my friend Will who came along on this trip to help me with transitions and novel situations, was right behind me. Implementing my intervention strategies he tried to take me away from the noise and confusion, but no matter where we went it seemed like we were standing right under the alarm. He decided it would be best to escort me out of the hotel and away from the confusion. We no sooner stepped outside and I began to feel a bit better when racing up the parking lot came a bevy of flashing lights and sirens as the fire department. trucks noisily rolled up in front of us with wailing sirens and eager firemen ready to jump into action. The fire fighters flew past us like a swarm of mosquitoes causing my internal panic wagon to jump into 5th gear with me in the driver's seat.
That wasn't helpful. It took me quite awhile to calm down as the alarm kept sounding. After 20 minutes the alarms shut off, and I was told the worst was over. I felt it would be a good idea to go back in seeing as my seminar was being delayed by my not being there. We started down the hall and like a jinx as soon as I stepped under a fire alarm the dang thing went off and blasted that annoying warning all over again. I felt like I had died and gone to autistics’ hell. The hotel fire alarm sirens sounded for 45 minutes until the firefighters had checked the entire building.
At that point I thought the lesson was that I have just ruined my reputation and all my attendees would leave in disgust. I felt humiliated by a silly little siren. Surprisingly a few came up to us to ask what they could do to help me through this. My meltdown, which I thought was the end of the world, became a hands-on teaching moment for my class. I was humbled by how empathetic and eager they were to come to my aid. After their support and encouragement I went back in to resume my seminar after an hour delay. As I walked through the door murmuring the words that "the show must go on" I received overwhelming applause by everyone in the room. It was just the boost I needed to deliver a powerful message on dealing with meltdowns. You should also know that I am living proof that you can’t die of embarrassment.
- The "Big Easy" Wasn't So Easy. (March 2012)
- The Grand Luncheon Entrance (June 2011)
- The Incident with Nurse Nana (February 2011)
- Getting The Wind Knocked Out Of My Sail (October 2010)
- I Never Saw It Coming (March 2010)
- The Ride of a Lifetime (June 2009)
- The Pet Store Encounter (April 2009)
- When You Gotta Go (March 2009)
- Membership into AAA (December 2008)
- Falling Apart Like a Celebrity Marriage (September 2008)
- GPS Stands for Great Personal Story (June 2008)
- Flying is for the Birds Part II (March 2008)
- Flying is for the Birds (December 2007)
- My Adventure In Gettysburg (September 2007)
- I am Driving Myself Crazy (June 2007)
- Look But Don't Touch (April 2007)
- The Joy is in the Journey and Not in the Destination (December 2006)
- Underwear Burned (September 2006)
- Is It Worth It? (June 2006)
- Don't Be Alarmed (March 2006)
- When an Image isn't an Icon (December 2005)
- Novel Situations Aren't Best Sellers (September 2005)
- Caution: Generic Application form Ahead (June 2005)