Trying something new
Last night I did something unusual for me; I went out to a restaurant. The sensory intensity in restaurants is high, sometimes completely overwhelming, so I don’t eat out often. But last night was a special occasion, and my mom and I went out together.
We went early to avoid the dinner crowd, but our regular Italian diner was closed for a family vacation, and we really wanted Italian, so we had to pick a new place. Many people go into a new place and judge whether they like it by how the decor feels to them, etc. I have other considerations. Let me take you through how I responded to this new environment:
The new diner had echo-y floors and walls (lots of noises), an open floorpan (nothing to cut the reverberation of noise), minimalist decor (more flat wall space to amplify noise), a partially open kitchen so everyone can see (and hear) everything going on in there, and the music was medium-high. Are you noticing a pattern? I have excellent hearing, but I hear everything very well.
I have a really hard time selectively paying attention to only some sounds, like my conversational partner talking to me, and letting the rest fade into the background. So when the waitress came over, I had a really hard time understanding what she was saying, and had to ask her to repeat herself several times.
The sounds of other guests chatting, utensils hitting plates, people walking around, the door opening and closing, all were nearly overwhelming me. And that’s just the soundscape. Other senses were intense, too—it was too cold, a lot to look at, although I purposely sat with my back to the room to minimize that, etc.—but for me the sounds were by far the most intense.
I thought about the headphones in my bag next to me, but with them on, I wouldn’t have been able to hold a conversation with my mom.
She isn’t on the spectrum, but is a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) and also gets overwhelmed by too much sensory input, and I could tell she was having a hard time, too.
But here’s the thing. I am tired of holding myself back from experiences because of my sensory stuff, and have been trying to try new things, but I also don’t want to do things that hurt me. I’ve done that too much.
Usually I can make myself stay in the restaurant, or wherever, but it is a trial to endure, not a positive experience that might tempt me to try something else in the future.
So I asked Mom and myself two questions.
1. On a scale of one to ten, how much do you want to eat here? (Mom: 6. Me: 7.)
2. On a scale of one to ten, how uncomfortable are you? (Mom: 7. Me: 7.)
That was interesting to both of us.
When the waitress came back for the third time to take our order, she could tell something was off, but had no idea what.
Saying what is wrong
For the last few years, I’ve been experimenting with actually saying what is wrong. Although I can be plenty direct (I’m autistic, after all) we are also socialized strongly to do or say things that help others feel at ease. “Don’t bring up what you don’t like about someone. Don’t tell someone they have a messy home. Don’t tell the waitress you don’t like the food. It’s rude.”
So my default (after more faux pas than I’d like to recount), has been to either endure the trial or to say something unclear and self-blaming to get out of there, like “sorry, something’s come up, I have to go.”
Here’s the problem with that.
If no one knows what is wrong, there is no possibility they can fix it. And they might be able to fix it. At least somewhat.
Like I said, I have been getting better at actually saying what is wrong.
So when the waitress came back for the third time, her body language told me that she could tell something was off, and it was up to me to fill in the missing information.
So I took a deep breath and said, “I’m having a really hard time with the sensory intensity in this room, and we’re trying to decide whether to stay here and try it or to go.”
She looked a little surprised, and then rallied quickly. She offered us to sit on the patio, which sounded great, and helped us move out there. There was only one other couple there and only four tables, the music was a little lower, and there wasn’t nearly as much to hear or see and my overwhelm level quickly sunk.
On my uncomfortable scale, I was at a four. I could handle a four. It was a huge improvement from a seven.
Here’s why it worked
Growing up, I had told people the things I didn’t like—“Did you like the meal? Not really.”—and that didn’t go over well, so I learned not to say what I didn’t like.
Now I am learning that there is a difference between saying what I don’t like that someone can practically make changes to that might help—“I’m having a really hard time with the sensory intensity in this room”—and things they can’t do anything about now—“I didn’t like that food.”
The more I do this, the more I am realizing that most people don’t react like I used to expect. They aren’t offended, they don’t accuse me of being rude, or complain about my lack of tact. Rather, they usually help me improve the situation. Not always. But often.
So my internal messaging has been slowly adapting and I am getting more comfortable about asking for what I need at times when it can make a practical difference.
While I wouldn’t go back to this restaurant, I am glad I had that experience of trying something new, advocating for myself, and getting a positive response. I might just try something else soon.