Groups of People and Daily Life

In a recent post on the holidays, I mentioned that gatherings of people are often too intense and too stressful for me. I avoid any social gatherings as often as possible, which has implications far beyond my family and holidays.

Consider all the daily events that are really gatherings of people, social or not:

1) School classrooms

It doesn't get any more over stimulating that most classrooms. The K-6 classrooms are the worst for me, with their "neurological stimulation" of name tags, charts, maps, calendars, student art, and more. I felt overwhelmed as a student and I still feel overwhelmed when I enter these rooms as an educator or consultant.

Now, add the students. What was already an overwhelming space can become a nightmare. I've substituted in K-6 classrooms, which seemed to go well enough, but I was ready to collapse at the end of each day. Young children are... well... children. One or two is okay. Twenty? You can't possibly keep them organized, on-task, and clean. Part of teaching is knowing how and when to manage a classroom. The K-6 setting requires gently nudging most students. It's exhausting for a "normal" teacher.

The middle school / junior high, and high school settings are a little easier for me. I've taught English, math, photography, and journalism as a long-term substitute. The rooms are focused on single topics, which I like. But, the students are... teenagers.

Teenagers experiment with dowsing themselves in fragrances, various chemical concoctions, piercings, and so on. They are making statements. Their statements are difficult to decode for mere adults. They talk, constantly. They try to text until you confiscate a phone or two. It's a social atmosphere.

College and university classrooms range from 12-person seminars to 1000-person lectures. You can imagine the odors, the noises, the chatting during lectures, the eating of nacho chips, and so on. College students range from the fragrance-soaked to the non-bathers. Then you have the students who cannot figure out that how they dress conveys a persona. Even as a teacher, I've wanted to tell students that shirts should fit, pants should not fall down, and poor hygiene might explain the empty seats around them.

2) Offices

Offices are like classrooms, but with a lot less order and far more noise. Depending on the arrangement of cubicles, open space, or walled offices, the smells and noises can range from mildly annoying to completely debilitating.

Workplaces are odd social hives. Studies show the average office worker has four to five productive hours per day (seriously, that's it). While waiting for computers, printers, and on-hold with vendors or clients, people in offices chat. They chat a lot. They'll approach for no reason and talk about things about which I could never feign interest.

The people smile and chat about sports, politics, their churches, the latest movies, and so on. There is seldom one conversation; more often it is four, five, or even a dozen conversations. And I'm compelled to try to follow voices and to untangle them so I can figure out what is or isn't important to me. Trying to focus on one person talking to me is frustrating and exhausting.

I want a silent little office and a list of tasks I should complete. Send me e-mail, don't waste my time telling me about Little League games or church events. Please, leave me alone! Go away!

I'm not interesting in being friends with most coworkers. I don't want to learn the office politics. I only want to do my job. Social clubs are for other people, I don't need work to be a club.

The too-loud phone talker, the over-colonged salesman, the woman who chews gum while talking, the man with new baby pictures, the "helpful" gossip who stops by every desk, the nosey tech, the friendly manager. Please, let me work. I don't understand you and don't want to have to keep trying.

3) Shopping almost anywhere

The stress depends on the store type and the customers. Some stores are worse than others. I like the garden shops at home improvement stores. I hate the chemical aisles. I love grocery store bakeries, but I hate to be near some of the "pre-prepared" deli counters that stink of oil and deep fried everything.

The people in some stores keep a nice distance and move politely. The clerks are not pushy, and I can relax.

Then, there is the Apple Store. I love my Macs, but I hate the store on weekends or busy weeknights. When I need something, I go during the day, mid-week. I know success is great, but do I need to share 800 square feet with 100 people, displays, and service counters? It's too much for me. I've walked out more than once to return later.

4) Public transit

I stopped using it. I cannot handle the people. A single bus or train ride can render me useless for two or three days.

5) Government offices

The lines at the DMV, county clerk, et cetera are like public transit.

6) Restaurants

I like the more formal places, because fast-food dining is loud. I can't bear the sounds of deep fryer alarms, microwaves, and other devices. Every fast-food chain is overwhelming inside, so I prefer take-out. Ideally, a drive-through or delivery.

I don't want to deal with children running about the dining area. I don't like the filth most people leave behind, when it isn't that difficult to bus a try to the trash. I just can't stand the muck of most fast-food dining areas.

Semi-formal is much, much better. Most of the time. Then, there is Big Bowl, which has wonderful Asian-influenced meals but imagines itself to be a nightclub. They play the music too loud, causing the diners to speak louder yet. I hate it, but I love the food. During the summer, you can eat outside, but the outside of a mall or strip center often has its own speakers playing loud music, car exhaust, and random groups of loud people walking past the tables.

I also find Don Pablos, a Tex-Mex chain, too loud. The customers get louder and louder. Add in alcohol, and the customers can be especially annoying. They need to turn down the music, too. I prefer smaller, family-owned Mexican places. They tend to be quieter, less crowded, and more attentive.

All three of my favorite places are semi-quiet, dimly lit places with good food.

Unfortunately, I've even had to leave my favorite restaurants because of noise or odors. Too many people is just too much for me, especially if the people are loud. You won't find me at a bar watching Monday Night Football or the Super Bowl. Sorry, just not able to deal with it.


  1. Chicago has the loudest restaurants in the country or so I've heard.

    I am curious about public transportation. Is it because you are unfamiliar with it and so it's stressful? Is it being crowded in a small place? Is it all the smells? What about when it's not crowded? Does it still bother you?

  2. I don't like the smells, the sounds, or the crowds. Even when it is empty, the light rail squeals loudly when it turns -- the metal-on-metal is one of the worst sounds I can recall.

    The bus system is always crowded, especially the campus connectors that run from St. Paul to the two Minneapolis campuses of the university. When we lived south of here, I had to take the two or three buses to the train station and the train down to the Mall of America. You can imagine the MOA's transit hub.

    We ended up moving closer to campus, which was a horrible mistake in terms of location. I cannot handle urban sounds, like the constant sirens my wife can only hear when I point them out.

    I did like Bloomington's bus service. I was often the only rider on the very nice small bus. Then again, not exactly cost-effective for taxpayers to have a bus taking me, one person, around town.

    Cities are simply cruelty to my senses.

  3. I can relate to a lot of this. I often leave stores if they are too crammed with people. And I can't function in an office with all the different conversations happening. And if I'm interrupted when I'm focussing on something at work, it's hard for me to re-focus after an interruption. Big time. I'm not autistic, that I know of, but my son is. Between the two of us, we make agreements like: "We'll go to the store but if it's too crowded, we'll leave." since neither of us can handle it very well. We wind up getting on each other's nerves when we are in a crowded store and it turns into a disaster for both of us.

  4. "poor hygiene might explain the empty seats around them. "

    Don't go to an AS support group if this bothers you.

  5. It is difficult to know if that is a snide comment or an observation. Unfortunately, it is accurate that I have had to advise individuals with ASDs that they need to establish a hygiene routine. They also forget to go to the campus medical center for any injuries or illnesses, or they avoid going because it panics them.

    I have a set routine of showering after I exercise in the morning and often in the evening, as well. I've suggested parents use charts or lists to remind students of such things.

  6. No, not a snide remark. Its an observation from my own support group.

  7. C.S., advising parents to have charts for these things, while seemingly worth while, doesn't really do anything for the ingrained brain chemistry of a person with AS that suffers from inertia. The problem is inertia, not a lack of knowing what to do and how it effects others. People with AS, not the broader ASD which includes AD because that is a different set of complications, know why they need to keep proper hygiene. Its the fact most suffer from inertia to actually DO proper hygiene. This is one of my issues with ND. There is an assumption, developed through disability politics, that people with AS and AD suffer from ignorance and or lack of routine that causes each groups respective issues. "If people would just learn to use a list" or that people can be trained to perform such and such task.

  8. Admittedly, I do not have an AS diagnosis and have found research that does indeed find differenced between HFA and AS individuals. That's one reason I question merging every individual into a single category -- there do seem to be differences.

    For example, students with AS diagnoses were more prone to depression than individuals diagnosed with HFA. Somewhere, I have a table comparing these studies and their findings. It does demonstrate that AS/HFA/PDD-NOS et cetera are likely different when research (as opposed to clinical) criteria are used.

    The revised DSM-V is going to make this a greater issue, as more generalizations will be offered about "autism" that do no apply across the spectrum.

    However, I must also say that students making it into a university setting do seem to follow routines and schedules, with some effort. That might also explain how they have managed to take courses they didn't want to take in order to meet admissions requirements. It is an interesting question to ponder and one worthy of future studies.


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