There is a saying that “A man’s home is his castle.” Putting aside the gender issue in that saying, I wonder how many autistic people have the absolute rule in their house? And it’s not just about what goes on in the home, the saying applies to being in control of the boundaries of one’s domain, including the front door but to put it into a current context, invasion can take place through more electronic means of communication.
In general, I live with other people though I am looking forward to a few days break from that over the Easter vacation! As somebody that is hypersensitive to sound, touch and light (taste and smell got dialled back by the immunosuppressive drugs I take), I am always on edge if other people are in the home. It is not that I don’t like these people, though there are of course disagreements, it is just that my body is always on alert when others are around. It is the flight, fight, or freeze autonomic response that is in play here. If other people are around me then I am automatically and constantly alert to danger. Now I don’t go around calling out, “danger Sandy Field, danger!”, it isn’t a conscious in-your-face assault, it is much more subtle than that. My anxiety levels will increase but because it is pretty much my steady state, my normal way of being, I only really become aware of it when unexpected encounters take place or when the place is empty. That is, my anxiety manifests itself when there are changes in my environment.
That feels like a bit of generalised waffle, so I’ll give some examples. This morning the doorbell rang. Now I didn’t actually hear the bell ring because I was in bed and oblivious to most of the world because I hadn’t earplugs fitted. If I had heard the bell, I would immediately be put in a dilemma. Somebody ringing the bell is an assault on my castle’s drawbridge. What do I do?
Well if I know other people are in the house I might freeze for a bit to see if they deal with it. Once somebody else moves, I might follow them too (but keep just out of sight) in case the caller wants to see me.
If I decide to answer the door then it means I am up for a challenge. Hopefully it will be a parcel courier or postie because I can get away with the minimum of interaction then. At this point I must confess that I am conscious of what I wear when I go to the door. Looking like you have just got up will encourage more complicated interaction. There might be questions that receive a blank stare or a “sorry?” because the context is lost on me for instance.
Back to parcels. Now if the delivery is for me, all is relatively easy. I sign if necessary (though I have to let go that the electronic version of my signature looks nothing like the real thing), thank the person and close the door. If the parcel is for somebody else, then I will take it reluctantly because I am aware the courier only gets paid if they deliver, but also because I would hope others would take the parcel for me too. Taking in another’s parcel though means unexpected visits from people I may have issues with (or they have issues with me) with notches up the anxiety too.
The other option of course is not to answer the door at all. Now this goes against cultural rules of politeness. I am aware of this so there is a part of me that feels compelled to open the door when someone knocks. It is a small amount of guilt which I can get over because my default want is to run a mile and avoid the issue. If I see somebody is canvasing on the street, or door step selling then I will leave the room (if I can see them, they can see me) and go to the other side of the house. If I am expecting a visitor, or parcel then I will go to the door and answer it. If there is an “undesirable” on my doorstep wanting to engage me in conversation then a quick, “sorry, really busy at the moment” followed by a closed door will usually solve the problem. This doesn’t always work partly because people ignore what I say, and partly because I don’t like lying so challenging that lie by responding to it leaves me floundering to how to continue the rebuff.
I can feel myself be uncomfortable writing about lying, I find it difficult to describe how I feel. I think lies lead to pain and I really hate the thought that I cause anybody any pain. There is too much pain in the world already.
So somebody calls, I don’t want to converse with them but my attempts to flee have failed. What do I do next? I was going to write “thankfully” then but I wonder if that is right. At any rate, when fleeing doesn’t work, my next response is to “fight”. Now I have had times when I use knowledge and ruthless logic to destroy persuasive arguments from people with strict religious views but mostly I let people do their spiel without challenge and politely turn down anything they want me to take/buy. They have done their job. I have kept my principals (aside from lying?) and apart from some time spent, all is okay with the world. I guess it is about interpretation, but I think there is something about saving face or fulfilling societal rules that means this feels okay. I am not sure. It does take effort though and sometimes I just don’t have the energy.
Having not heard the doorbell today, I am okay about not opening the door. It was a courier and the parcel was left down the side of the house.
I think the other area that feels like an attack on the castle is the telephone line. As a boy I would answer the phone without a second thought. I actually took great delight in speaking my learnt lines, “Waterlooville 52106, who’s calling please?”. I didn’t worry about telling my parents an incorrect name, I don’t think I even thought about why I had misunderstood it. Time past and the numbers changed, first an extra digit on the front, then a completely different area code. My attitude to the phone changed too. At work I didn’t like using it, preferring instead to go and talk to somebody face-to-face. At home we got more and more selling calls. I think the conversations on the phone got more complicated for me and the anxiety in using it or answering it increased. We got an answerphone and in a sense that gave me permission to not pick up the receiver when the phone rang.
It was when I was required to ring people back and take their details that I started to develop a real dislike for the phone. I live in Scotland. I am English and though I have a pretty good ear, some accents just defeat me. I felt incredible awkward asking somebody to spell their name out several times and still not be sure if I had it correct. Then there were the questions that I had not answers to. I don’t like not being able to give people the support they need. The internationalism of communications has made this more difficult. I know it makes a product cheaper (or cynically creates more profit) if a call centre is based where there is cheap labour but I struggle with native speakers, add a difficult accent on top and it encourages me to switch to a different provider.
The answerphone is my protector though. People have the option of leaving a message which I can deal with in other non-verbal and less energy taking ways if possible (email or text perhaps). Cold callers (yes there are still plenty despite the Telephone Preference Service) don’t leave messages and so can be ignored. It’s the friends that don’t leave messages that gets me. I have learnt over the years though to believe that if something is important enough, people will leave a message. Of course, there is still the cultural politeness response of always picking up the telephone and sometimes I throw the die and take the chance. Sometimes I succeed with the luck because it is my wife calling or a friend to arrange something, sometimes it is somebody wanting more money. Like answering the door, I will deploy my flee and if necessary, fight procedures. Take more than a second to speak to me though and I will hang up on you. I can be more ruthless when it is not face-to-face.
So if I were to find an answerphone for the door that would make my life easier. A butler would be the answer I suppose but that involves living with others which is a challenge. But I do that anyway. Just don’t tell my housemates that I think of them as butlers, I think “answerdoor” is a better term. I have only written about land-line telephones here, there is of course the mobile telephone and trailing along with it, the internet. I however don’t have any issues turning these off despite convention that they are always on. Maybe that is another post though.