Wednesday 13 May 2020

Fire drill

I thought it would be interesting to give an account of an incident that shows how autism can sometimes affect me in ways which are at best debilitating and at worst downright dangerous.

As part of my job, I sit on various scientific committees which review applications for research funding. These are usually rather sedate affairs, although pretty difficult work because there is always far less money available than demand. It is also very important, both for the new knowledge that will be uncovered and for people's careers. All us panellists take it incredibly seriously.

At one event last year, which was a week-long panel meeting, we were working on the seventh floor of a large office building. At the start of Day 1, the panel organisers advised us that, in the event of a fire drill, we should evacuate the building and meet at a nearby hotel. However, we were also told that in all the decades of such meetings there had never been a fire drill. I, of course, took that literally to mean that there would be no fire drill on this occasion either and put it out of my mind.

Three things I do not cope well with: sudden change; loud noises; unpredictable crowds. When the drill alarm went off on Day 3, all three violently intruded. The sudden change from academic discussion to emergency exit caused me immediately to start to shut down mentally. We then had to get into the stairwell with an extremely loud alarm and descend 14 flights. I scrambled into my bag to find my noise-cancelling headphones. They are the best (Bose Comfort) but even they could not block out the alarm. 

Had it not been for the crowd, forcing me down the stairwell, I would probably have ended up sitting in a room rocking back and forth and waiting for the alarm to stop. Obviously that would have been very dangerous. As it was, I was conveyed out onto the street by the flow of colleagues. I was incapable of rational thought and could not speak.

My group set off towards the hotel, so I walked that way too. But I had no idea why we were going there. I thought perhaps they fancied a walk in the sunshine. As my shutdown deepened, I resorted to one of the things that gives me a sense of normality and predictability: playing Pokémon Go. As I became lost in trying to collect Pokémon, I wandered off and was gone for maybe half an hour. I had no idea where I was and occasionally started crying. The game would bring me back to some kind of stable state, but I would keep sliding away again.

Eventually, some other members of the panel came and found me. I was horrified to learn that they had been anxiously looking for me. They escorted me to the hotel and it was only when we got there that I finally remembered the instruction on the first day. 

After some time, during which I just sat in a corner, the head organiser arrived. I tried to explain that I was autistic (something I had not disclosed before) but his initial reaction was disbelieving. I got the usual: "I know autistic people and you are not like them" response. Later, when we had corresponded a bit, I think he realised he made a mistake and was much more sympathetic, even asking for a report so that they could learn how to do things differently next time.

For me it was shocking, but not surprising, to realise how quickly I could change from taking decisions worth millions of pounds about scientific research to being unable to speak and only able to survive by playing Pokémon Go. All caused by sensory overload and a sudden change in environment and social interaction.