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Autism at the pub

Five things that help me, and why this is hard in the first place.

Picture the scene: a bustling bar at the end of the week, excitement in the air, friends calling out to each other. The smell of cigarettes wafting in from the garden, the thrum of people having a good time. Glasses clinking, sticky tables, smiles all around.

There are some things you will not see in this scene. For example, the woman opposite you is fighting off a complete meltdown.

While you are talking to her, and to your friends on either side, she is listening and smiling and saying things that are — every now and then — quite funny.

She is also working hard to stop her eyes from darting around the room as you speak. To not let her face react when a door on the other side of the bar squeaks. To not flinch when people get too close. Or when she can hear them chewing — on food she will not eat, because she did not know where you were going, could not see the menu in advance, so ate hours ago to be safe.

She washed her hands in the bathroom earlier. But then could not reach her hand cream in amongst the mound of bags. Now her hands feel horrible. The feeling is filling up her head and she can feel the anxiety rising and growing and can barely listen to a single word you are saying. She is desperately trying to hold onto the thread. Just enough to calculate the appropriate facial expression. Most of the time, she gets this right.

While everything in her head screams: RUN.

But all you will notice is how much of a f****** great time she is having. Nope. Nothing to see here.

Five things that help me

Now, this might sound odd given the above, but I do actually quite like going to the pub. Bear with me…

I don’t like it when all of those things happen, sure. But since my autism diagnosis, I have become aware of why all those things happen. That means I get a choice. A chance to intervene. And with some careful planning, pubs can be a very predictable, low-stakes outing. Here are some things that help me.

Thing 1: Choosing the pub myself

Simple but effective. Most people don’t care that much, so suggesting a place I am familiar with is usually fine. Without this feeling like a “thing” that I am asking for. I try to choose somewhere: familiar, easy to travel to, relatively quiet, where I can book a table, where I know how to order, and can see the menu online. The more things are predictable and controllable, the better.

Thing 2: Keeping things quiet before and after

I have started to plan in time away from humans before and after going out. Usually, this means time spent on my “special interests”. This is something I would not have done before my diagnosis. I used to go through spurts of socialising several nights in a row: “in for a penny!” then — shock horror— find myself burnt out and overwhelmed before long. Even just acknowledging the effort that socialising takes can make a big difference. I track social energy expenditure on my “autism whiteboard” as a visual reminder to factor this into decisions.

Thing 3: Not expecting bar staff to follow my script(s)

Like many autistic women, I mask a lot. My default is to script every possible interaction. Especially ones that ought to be predictable. Like ordering drinks at a pub, or finding your table reservation at a pub, or asking where the toilet is at a pub. Just off the top of my head. The more “predictable”, the more thrown I am when things veer off-script. I always assume they will go to plan.

If I don’t prep what to say in those situations, I can go very blank. I get the dreaded rabbit-in-the-headlights feeling where, just for a few seconds, they might notice that I have no clue what I am supposed to be doing. So I prep. On the other hand, the very act of prepping means that, if they do not stick to their side of the script or don’t let me start mine, I also go blank. It’s as if I can’t actually control all social interactions. Who knew?

So… I am trying not to plan this quite so much. I think about the information I need — e.g. my name, time of booking, order — but try not to run through the actual sentences too many times. If I catch myself doing this, I distract myself with something in the present. I also plan to leave a gap before responding during the interaction, to give myself time to think. That way I’m not so easily caught off guard when this inevitably has to happen anyway.

Thing 4: Preparing for hand- and nail-related sensory issues

These are the most constant and infuriating sensory issues I have. They get worse the more anxious I am, but even at baseline anxiety levels, they’re pretty bad. If I’m out walking I always feel the need to press on my toenails — sometimes even walking on them, which can hurt. In bed, the feel of them against the sheets often keeps me awake and can overwhelm me to the point of a panic attack. I constantly press my fingernails down because they feel like they could get pulled back. And if someone tries to speak to me, or really if I have to do anything at all, between washing my hands and applying hand cream… it feels like my brain might explode. My hands feel too horrible for words. This has caught me out before at work, as well as in bars. I’ve spent entire meetings just screaming in my head wanting to run away and fix it.

At the pub, I will have some extra anxiety — maybe a lot. So these things will be worse than baseline. Now that I understand why this is an issue, however, it is much more predictable. I make sure I’ve cut my fingernails short — the feeling is worse the longer they get. I make sure there is always hand cream within reach — I have some in my bag and in my coat and keep at least one of those nearby. I also let myself take my shoes or socks on and off enough times until my toenails feel “right” before leaving the house.

Thing 5: Sometimes, just don’t

This is a new one for me. But it is pretty obvious in hindsight. I am gradually becoming aware of the amount of energy that going out can take. So it is now a more conscious decision whether to take that hit — or not.

Things that might make me decide to not: a big group, lots of new people, several social events in a row, not being in control of the location or knowing it is somewhere busy, if I’ve had a busy day, or am already quite overwhelmed. Depending on the person or people, I might suggest my house or a park as an alternative. That has helped. Outright saying no to things has felt weird, and I still feel guilty about it. But the relief afterwards makes me very sure it was the right call… So I’m sure I’ll get over that soon.

I’m still experimenting with all of this. I know that it will take time. But I am already starting to feel more in control, and less buffeted around by some mysterious anxiety. I am learning to go easier on myself. To ask for the things that I need. And I am optimistic that the future looks bright... Quieter, for sure. But bright.

Lauren x


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