My Love/Hate Relationship with Concerts: Stimming Joy & Sensory Overload

I’ve loved music as long as I can remember… from singing along to “Shout” by Tears for Fears on MTV before I could properly talk to stim-listening to the same Manic Street Preachers song repeatedly, music has featured in my life in one way, shape or form.

My first ever concert experience was 25 years ago today – 15th July 1993 at Melody Fair Theatre in North Tonawanda, New York.  I was 8 years old and attended The Moody Blues “A Night at Red Rocks” tour, my first outing alone with my parents since my brother was born a little over four years prior (he stayed with my grandparents while we went to the concert)… I remember feeling really excited to get the alone time with my parents, and I really liked The Moody Blues’ music.

(Before anyone decides to poke fun or anything, how many 8-year-olds do you know with their own taste in music that was not at all influenced by their parents?)

Because this was 25 years ago and I’ve slept a lot since then, I only remember snippets from the whole experience.  Melody Fair had a circular stage in the middle of a dome-shaped structure which slowly rotated throughout the concert (the stage, not the building!)… at one point as the band rotated past us, bassist John Lodge waved at me!  I remember one of my foam earplugs fell out (knowing me, I was probably fiddling with it because it felt funny or something) and I couldn’t believe how loud it was.  I looked to my dad for help and he whisked me out of my seat to the rear of the auditorium to put my earplug back in and settle me down.  We went back in and enjoyed the rest of the show.  I loved the feeling of being immersed in the music and seeing a band that I had only ever seen in music videos on TV in person.

We didn’t know back then that I was autistic or had sensory sensitivities; my dad was acting as a concerned and attentive parent, ensuring that his young daughter’s hearing was protected.

Fast forward 25 years.

I can’t remember how many concerts I’ve been to, but I’ve seen The All-American Rejects nine times between 2003-2012 and Manic Street Preachers nine times as well between 2010-2018, so that’s at least 18 concerts… Roger Waters three times (twice The Wall 2011 & 2013 and once US+THEM 2018)… Flight of the Conchords twice (2010 & 2018)… you get the picture.

The phrase “I like going to concerts” is a bit of a misnomer.  Being a pedantic amateur linguist, the more accurate phrase for me would be “I like actually being in my seat and watching the show in my own little bubble and ignoring the rest of the world around me while immersed in the music & lights”.  I have continued with wearing earplugs to concerts, more recently really enjoying using Flare Audio Isolate Mini earplugs, as the sound isn’t muffled and you end up listening through bone conduction.  The rumbling bass and pounding drumbeats reverberate through me and the lighting is colourful and fun to watch.  Being at the concert itself is a full-body stimming experience, which may be overwhelming for some, but when in the right headspace, I love it.

However, it’s the before and after that almost always ruins the enjoyable experience for me.

I’ll use our most recent experience attending the Flight of the Conchords show in Birmingham a few weeks ago as a prime example of what I struggle with most.

We were in the midst of the seemingly neverending heatwave in the UK… temperatures were between 84-90°F (29-32°C).  Very little breeze.  Not really humid, but quite uncomfortable.  My husband and I arrived at the National Exhibition Centre (NEC) complex in Birmingham, parked the car and walked towards Genting Arena.  It felt like it was taking absolutely ages to get to our destination… the heat certainly wasn’t helping things.  We stopped to get something to eat about 3/4 of the way to the arena itself at The Piazza within the NEC itself.  Even going inside, there was no respite from the heat – no air conditioning, no real air movement at all.  The restaurant we stopped at wasn’t very busy to start, but quite soon loads more people arrived and the quiet table we had to ourselves soon had people sitting at every other table near us, and because they were quite close together, individuals would invariably brush past or bump into me as they were walking to their tables from ordering within the restaurant.  Once or twice, I could forgive, but by the fifth or sixth time, it was getting my hackles up, especially as I was still trying to finish my dinner.  As soon as we were finished, we moved away from the restaurant’s seating area and sat at another small table in the Piazza’s open area, spending a little time catching up on Facebook and the news in general for several minutes before heading to the arena.

The walk to the arena wasn’t too bad, other than having to negotiate walking around pairs and small groups of people, which isn’t easy when you have subtle proprioceptive difficulties and somewhat dyspraxic tendencies that are exacerbated by being fatigued and overheated.

Following the Manchester Arena attack last year, security checks at concert venues have been ramped up, which I’m absolutely fine with; however, I am always very self-conscious when I find myself fumbling with the zippers on my rucksack and there’s a queue of people behind me watching, as well as the security officer waiting for me to get my bag open… this little spike of anxiety makes me less dexterous and fumble more, which I then think makes me look guilty somehow, even though I know I’m not bringing anything dangerous or illegal in with me.

Once beyond security, the overwhelm begins.  The arena’s Forum Live area is “the place to grab some food, meet friends for a drink and listen to some fantastic unsigned acts on the Forum Live stage before the main event”… food stands, alcohol purveyors, merchandise stands, music performers, and even charity collectors from Guide Dogs UK – the poor dogs looked so miserable, it was so loud and hot.  There were people everywhere… it was so noisy, and trying to navigate through the crowd was causing another anxiety spike.  We joined a sort-of organised crowd queue system in front of the merchandise stand, which gave us time to have a look at what was available to buy.  I settled on a set of enamel pins – Bret & Jemaine’s faces and a stylised FOTC logo like the pop art LOVE sculpture.

After getting a pint of cider, we found our seats and settled in for the show.  I finally was able to settle down and feel calm.

Eugene Mirman opened the show and was very funny.  Having seen him in FOTC’s HBO show and being a voice actor for shows like Archer and Bob’s Burgers, it was a bit surreal to see him in person.

The Conchords took the stage to a warm reception from the crowd.  The stage set was very simple – a couple of chairs, microphones and their instruments (including a piano) – and the plain backdrop behind the duo acted as a canvas for a colourful PARcan light show.  The show itself was absolutely brilliant and I thoroughly enjoyed it… some new songs we’d never heard before mixed in with several familiar tunes from the TV show.

Then the show ended and it was time to depart.  The difference between the NEC and the NIA (now Arena Birmingham) is that the NEC, while near the Birmingham International Airport railway station, I don’t think many people travelled by train; due to the show’s scheduled end time, the last train would have already left.  The NIA is within short walking distance to both New Street and Snow Hill stations, and thus people tend to disperse in multiple directions from the NIA, whereas from the NEC, it seemed that the majority of people were heading in the same direction towards the car parks.

Walking out of the arena, I kept my earplugs in and I was so glad I did.  Even through my earplugs, it sounded like a cacophony walking through the Forum Live area towards the arena exits, almost like the roar of the ocean in a storm.  I clung to my husband so we didn’t lose each other in the crowd.  As soon as we got outside, I took myself off the footpath onto the grass to catch my breath.  I had to build myself up for the long walk back to the car.

Along the footpath to the car parks, there were pedestrian tunnels and pinch points along the way, which led to the throng of people to stop outright periodically.  Even though it was getting close to 11pm by this point, it was still quite stiflingly warm and I was exhausted… I just wanted to get back to the car.  I didn’t want to be stuck in amongst the crowd of people, hot and sticky and worn out.

When we finally got back to the car, trying to leave was nigh on impossible.  The cars were queuing, pulling out of their car parking spaces cutting others off rudely, and only inching forwards every few minutes.  We were stationary for nearly 45 minutes before we noticed that a second exit to the car park was opened, and we managed to loop the car around to leave that way.  Due to traffic jams (unclear as to the cause), we ended up taking a little detour to get back on the motorway we needed to head home whilst avoiding the long queues on the roads off the NEC campus.

Granted, this was highly unusual and we’ve never experienced a departure from a gig like this… the last time I was stuck leaving an event was easily back when I was still living in Western New York and was trying to leave a Sabres game from downtown Buffalo.

The sensory overwhelm and stress caused by all of this almost made me completely forget about the enjoyable experience I had at the show itself.

My biggest frustration is that being autistic and having sensory needs is not quite recognised by venues like this, nor even by government support offices (I tried applying for Personal Independence Payments to have evidence of need for access, but was declined because I’m too capable of looking after myself… that will be another blog for another day).  The NEC’s website has a section about accessibility for those with physical needs and disabilities, but no indication of how to support autistic guests.  Having a separate accessible entrance & exit and perhaps a shuttle between the car park & venue would have greatly reduced the stress I experienced.  I suppose it’s about raising these kinds of issues and making these venues aware of how they could support guests with invisible disabilities and conditions… but whether they would be open to accommodating us remains to be seen.

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