I’ve known for a very long time, since long before I considered autism, that certain places have the power to exhaust me, pretty much on first sight or, should I say, feeling since its a multi-sensory thing. Recent discussions about the priorities of relocation, and not just ours, have really focused in on this topic and caused me to play around with its nuances relative to health. Now, it’s a factor that feels very-much connected to my autism. The “wrong place” can have very detrimental effects on my energy, my mental and physical health, my executive and other skills and my overall wellbeing, something that can’t simply be overridden as a matter of convenience or so-called other necessity; rather, this factor is the necessity to be addressed, before anything else for me is viable. I have to assume it’s an autistic thing to be like this, but also that I am not the only person affected in this way and, in fact, I know now from conversations that I am absolutely not. I also suspect that autistic people are very far from the only ones affected though maybe, to others, the effects are generally far more subliminal, unless the person happens to be what is classed as highly sensitive (which is its own expression of neurodivergence). Whatever, we seem to be in the minority, as reflected by the dominant state of the world…because, if we were all so sensitive, there would be so much more consideration and respect given to our built and managed environments, by those creating them and also those living in them day-to-day.
I’d fooled myself, for a long time, that I wasn’t so very sensitive due to my love of cities and even a high level of excitement or inspiration when staying in some of them. Now I see the pattern, being that those I am energised, not depleted, by have tended to bear out certain rules of orderliness and proportion, following universal guidelines of aesthetic that were long maintained but which have been actively challenged in the last 100 years. Conversely, chaotic, deliberately provocative or brutalist environments that throw the universal rule book out of the window, plus those that have gone to the dogs, affront me at a level that feels like a literal physical blow, slicing into me, eroding away all my well-being, siphoning off my energy as though I am being murdered right there on the spot. Places I have loved or been excited by have included Venice, Bruges, Bath, Amsterdam, even bits of Paris, Florence, London (all of these amongst my most visited places). So when I say I love city breaks I actually find I’ve frequented these, and a few other comparables, over and over again in a pretty repetitious fashion, having spent far more time on fascinating city breaks in my earlier life than on a beach. Yet other cities, and parts of the urban sprawl around well-preserved centres, send me into cold sweats at the mere thought and I notice a recent pattern of doing almost anything to get out of going to them or finding myself too unwell to go at the last minute. This sends out mixed signals to other people because how can I justify struggling with one place, having just been to another, and why does one place seem to energise me while another buckles me at the knees, but now I finally get it even if its hard to explain. It’s also telling that I haven’t gone into my nearest town centre for coming up 4 years because I haven’t felt well enough or some last minute excuse will arise yet I will still jump at going to other places (realising this was a main motivation for deciding it was time to move on). When we find ourselves with less and less spoons each day, the body will self-preservate the best it can and the body also speaks great wisdom, if we will but listen to it. As an autistic person, I listen to mine a lot.
I think we all know that the last century has been quite brutal to the aesthetic of so many urban places. Whilst countless gleaming buildings have risen up to the personal glory of whoever funded them, the overall cohesion has been sacrificed apace and those glossy monuments to modernity seldom appease my sense of well-being, however many water features or green walls they throw in. Around the edges, dereliction, concrete ugliness and vandalised mess abound. Drop into the Google map of most cities and prepare to be affronted by a degree of ugliness that most people seem to acclimatise to but which I never can. For me, it’s a physical sensation of repugnance that I can’t even describe with words and it sends my wiring into extreme overwhelm, exhaustion and chaos to be in it or to even visually encounter it for very long.
Yet I wasn’t always so obviously affected, even though I clearly was beneath the surface, from a very young age, because I can remember instances. I would always need to take with me or wear certain props to buffer the more urban environments (deep hoods on coats, as an example) as a child and, even way back then, I had favourite places with more conservation style architecture. By teens or young adulthood, I had built up a certain resilience through familiarity. At least, there was a time when I seemed more able to override the effects of this sensitivity in order to normalise my responses (much as I was better equipped to mask all my numerous differences, put up with so many of my sensory sensitivities without skipping a beat, until I suddenly lost the stamina to mask or put up with it at all). A main motivator for leaving home at 18, moving further than any other family member ever had was, in truth, a search for a better aesthetic when I look back to the rationale of my choice and now (that where I live has taken the hit of overpopulation and poor planning decisions) I am at that crossroads again. So how come I have managed to tolerate urbanity at all and even, sometimes, to like it?
I suspect there’s a degree to which even those things that overstimate an autistic brain can be tolerated if there is also a good degree of fascination or mental excitement onboard, at least for a while. I was watching an episode of “The Good Doctor” last night and, whilst I can only form my own opinion about how accurate a portrayal of autism the main character is, it interested me that, when confronted with a helicopter poised for takeoff with all the inherent noise and turbulence, and just as his colleague comments something like “sorry, I know this must be terribly overstimulating for you…” his face lights up and he walks eagerly towards it, all his usual sensory processing challenges completely overridden by his obvious fascination with the machine.
In fact the whole premise of the program is this character’s ability to override considerable challenges because of his fascination with medicine. This I can attest to because, where fascination is, I too can override sensory tortures, or at least for as long as excitement is still viable and sustainable. Perhaps this is why I coped better with urbanity as an over-excited, eager-for life twenty-something, though the effect quickly waned by my thirties. Also, when an urban setting meets the eye with beauty and balance, offering cultural compensations around every corner, I have (and still can) get excited enough to compensate for other challenges such as a degree of overcrowding or increased noise. The same applies at a concert that I really want to be at. This ability to override other challenges has, as age and health (also jadedness with life!) taken a toll, become much reduced…considerably so in the last ten years or so. Therefore, as my ability to find compensatory excitements and fascinations in certain places has waned, my ability to tolerate them…at all…has slipped away and the effect has been to reduce the amount of overstimulation I can cope with overall as I age. I suspect there are factors in this to do with my introversion and “where I get my energy from”, since introverts recharge their batteries by being alone and urban spaces don’t offer many opportunities for that, at all. My introversion also seems to have increased tenfold with age and post pandemic, which was the first time in my life that I was able to pander fully to its needs, making it very hard to revert back to the state of tolerance that I used to try to apply to a reality where introversion is so very hard to accommodate due to (once again) being in a minority thus not one of the prime influencers of the way things are set-up in so called normality. The modern world has largely been sculpted by extroverted, hyposensitive people and, now I find it harder than ever to pretend, put-up-with or mask, has become an environment I struggle with more times than not.
Perhaps this sliding tolerance thing is something that happens to all of us with equally sliding age and stamina, allistic people included. The same exodus to the big cities that happens in our 20s tends to reverse, to a large extent, in our 30s, 40s and 50s. Those same factors that energise suddenly deplete or repel and suddenly we all seem to long for a place in the country or at least a quieter spot with a lot more space. With a booming population, where does that lead us in the coming decades? What quieter, more aesthetic places will be left for those of us that need them like air? Cities, by and large, are becoming more chaotic, more grungy, more overstimulating than they have ever been and they can’t just be playgrounds for the young and sensorily tolerant as there will always be other people forced to live in them, perhaps struggling and floundering, gasping for sensory relief. I am hypersensitive so perhaps I see this burgeoning issue as though I am the canary in the coal mine but that must surely make those like me a cursory warning as to where we are headed.
All I can be absolutely sure of is that some places instantly deplete me like I have taken a chemical bath or eaten something off my allergy list…the effect is that instantaneous. I can’t even watch programs set in certain places; my recent abortion of a tv series that was otherwise fascinating to me, long before the plot had unravelled, being testament to the fact. Realising the degree to which I am affected by this, and have always been affected, is at least a useful thing to be warned about at my age, where I have reasonable choices at my disposal since prewarned is prearmed when I make any decisions about location. These days, when I decide whether the answer is “yes” or “no” to a place, even for a short visit, I take full consideration of this factor into account, rather than pretending it doesn’t exist like I used to do. Its not so useful to my daughter, who (unprompted by me) recently brought up observations about her own hypersensitive responses to places and the self-observed correlation with her state of energy and general wellbeing given she is at an age where she still has to override her sensitivities in order to “get on” in her career. This fills me with parental trepidation since I know what an ultimately detrimental effect long use of the “override” button had on my health (which tanked utterly after 2 years’ commute to the ugliest place I ever worked; not the only but certainly one of the biggest factors in my crash, in hindsight).
So is this thing an autistic disability or more a case of, yet again, struggling with the effects of living in an allistic-created world, where the majority seem to be equipped with extra thick skins to things that often affront the more sensitive, which may very well include some, if not all, autistic people and a good number of other neurodivergent individuals? What would a world constructed, or at least informed, by the more sensitive amongst us look and feel like; would it be a healthier, more harmonious place? That’s something I really hope future generations get to find out but what we need, first, are many more neurodivergent people on the inside as architects and policymakers and then, just maybe, we would see some better levels of wellbeing and mental health being played out, not just for us but perhaps for everyone.
2 thoughts on “Places that deplete”
Thank you for this post! I’m also someone (AuDhd) who can often love the stimulation of the city but completely crumble in an instant if an environment feels wrong.
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That’s so interesting to hear as you do get to the point of wondering “is it just me?” so thanks for commenting, as ever.