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.

Aspie Burnout & The Worst Migraine of My Life…

This past week was very full-on, as we spent a few days in London, which were brilliant but completely overwhelming for me.  When you look at what we did, it was a fun time away:

We arrived on Tuesday, had lunch at Zizzi’s, then found our hotel and thought about what to do in the evening.  I suggested going to see the new Harry Potter(-ish) film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.  As to be expected in London, standard cinema tickets were extortionately expensive, so to make it worth the extra money, we went to The Lounge at the Odeon, which was just down the road and on the corner of the road where our hotel was.  The Lounge was for adults only (as in no children under 18 allowed), with dedicated bar service and food menu, as well as leather sofas which reclined and had footrests which elevated – and even a call button for service so you didn’t have to leave your seat during the film!!  The film was fantastic and the viewing experience was top notch, as there were no extraneous noises from the other cinema-goers to irritate me.  We walked back to our hotel and went to bed, ready for another full day ahead.

Wednesday morning, we went downstairs for breakfast.  This is where my first wobble happened.  Every hotel is different – some let you help yourself to a table and food, others want you to wait to be seated and verify you have pre-booked your breakfast.  No one was stood by the door when we reached the breakfast room and when I enquired to an employee if we had to check in or just help ourselves, it became apparent that English was not her first language and she walked off to get someone else without saying a word (and just looking very nervous).  Someone else came back with her and still did not seem to understand my question, so led us to a table then said, “you can help yourselves to the continental breakfast.”  Why lead us to a table when we’re not going to sit down until we have food?  Surely it made more sense to say, “yes, help yourselves and I’ll lead you to a table.” or something like that.  So that frustrated me as it was a whole back-and-forth exchange that didn’t need to be so complicated.  The breakfast offering wasn’t that great either – the milk for the cereal was nearly room temperature (yuck!), the croissants were bordering on stale, the apple I had was mushy and gross, and nothing else on offer appealed to me.  We went back up to the room to prepare to set off for Watford Junction to get to the Harry Potter Studio Tour.

We knew that we had one change on our travels at Euston Station, but what we did not anticipate was the sheer volume of people trying to make it up the escalators – it was like herding cattle, so crowded and disorienting.  When we finally made it into the station to look at the train departure boards, I was overwhelmed by everything around me and only paid attention to seeing “WATFORD JUNCTION” on the departure boards – not thinking twice about it being London Overground (which is what we got) vs London Midland (which is what we wanted).  I thought that it shouldn’t be too much of an issue, or we could go change platforms, but Paul said that it would cost us to swipe our Oyster cards back out again, even though we haven’t gone anywhere, so we stayed and took the London Overground, which took nearly 45 minutes to get to Watford Junction, as it stopped at every. single. stop. along. the. way.  [The London Midland service would have gotten us there in 20 minutes.]  Thankfully, when we eventually arrived, the designated coach that runs directly between Watford Junction and the Studio Tour was still waiting by the kerb, so we dashed for it and got on board before it set off.

Queueing for entry to the Studio Tour wasn’t too terrible, though it was surprisingly crowded for a Wednesday morning (during term-time as well).  Seeing everything on the tour was hampered by the other tourists/visitors getting in my way when I was trying to see something or snap a picture – I realise this sounds childish, but I would stand aside to let people take their photo before trying to take mine, but I kept being cut off and blocked and at times I genuinely wondered if I was invisible. 😦  We did enjoy going around and seeing all the authentic objects/props/sets from the films… it truly was magical.  Lunch was expensive (as one would expect from a prime London tourist spot) and the Butterbeer was weird (Paul thought it tasted like butterscotch and Irn-Bru, and I thought the frothy foam top was a bit too sweet for my liking), but I’m glad we tried it.  We showed great restraint in the gift shop at the end, only purchasing a Hogwarts crest fridge magnet and picking up our Collector’s Guide (which was purchased as part of our ticket package).

The London Midland service back to Euston was a lot quicker.  We got back in plenty of time to grab a quick bite near the hotel, drop our Harry Potter stuff off and minimise our carried possessions to head off to the concert in Islington.  When we changed from the Central to Victoria lines, the Tube was quite full and busy, but I just counted the number of stops until we made it to Highbury & Islington.  When we arrived at the platform, the place was absolutely packed – unbeknownst to us, there was a home game for Arsenal and loads of punters were using the Underground to get to the match.  It took several minutes to get through the throng of people – Paul stayed behind me with his hands on my hips, which made me feel safe and secure – and when we made it to the ground level near the exit, I needed to stand off to the side to catch my breath and de-stress a bit.  I had never been in such a crowded situation like that where it was so closed-in (the last time we were in a similar situation was when we saw the Manic Street Preachers at Cardiff Castle and were trying to exit with the thousands of attendees through one of the two castle entryways, but at least it was out in the open).

The concert hall was easy to find and we were up in the balcony quite quick to secure good seats in the first row; Paul was very happy with our positioning in line with one of the speaker stacks.  The comedian who was emceeing was a bit obnoxious (I didn’t laugh at any of his material), the supporting act Haiku Salut was a bit too avant-garde for my liking (though I didn’t exactly dislike their set either), comedian Ed Byrne was hilarious, and PSB’s set was brilliant.  The one-off show was in benefit of Bowel Cancer UK and over £12,000 was raised.

The Tube was a fair bit quieter heading back to the hotel afterwards, as the football finished before the concert did.

Thursday morning breakfast was a bit of a palaver too, but this time it was just too crowded and too noisy for me – the ceilings were quite low, there were a lot of people, the tables were all quite close together, and all I could hear was silverware banging and clanging on plates and bowls – it was enough to drive me mad.  We quickly ate and went back up to the room and had a little lie-down with the curtains drawn and one of the dim sidelights on.  Paul gave me a cuddle and I got a bit weepy, but then I got cross with myself for getting weepy over something so trivial, but I was genuinely feeling so overwhelmed by all the extraneous sensory input over the last few days.  After about 20 minutes (and an episode of BoJack Horseman on Netflix), I felt ready to pack up and check out of the hotel.

Sitting in the Victoria Coach Station departure lounge was the most irritating experience, to say the least.  Every few seconds, the three-toned chime for an upcoming announcement would sound, followed by someone blowing into a microphone and saying “one two one two, testing”, followed again by the three-toned chime.  Repeat that at least 25-30 times over the course of an hour.  After about 5 minutes, I had to put earplugs in, but that didn’t help silence it completely, and I didn’t have my headphones or iPod to listen to music to drown it out, but it was slowly driving me mad.  Ten minutes prior to boarding our coach, Paul asked for the ticket, which I handed him.  He said, “the date is wrong.”  He had asked me to change our departure time a few days before from 16:30 to 12:30, but National Express’s website clearly did not keep my selection of Thursday 24th as it changed to Tuesday 22nd – effectively, turning around 40 minutes after arriving in London to return home!!  I naturally started to panic, but Paul said to keep cool.  He handed the coach driver the paper with his thumb over the date – everything else from the departure time to the coach number matched – and the driver accepted it and welcomed us onto the coach!!  I couldn’t believe it – thankfully the coach was less than half full, so it’s not like we were taking seats away from other travellers, but I was so grateful to not have to shell out extra money I didn’t have to amend it a second time.  I am grateful for positive outcomes like this!! 🙂

Thursday evening when we got home, I was zonked.  There was no way I had the energy to go to my usual choir session, so I instead went to dinner with Paul, his mother, and his uncle & aunt who were visiting from London.  Not quite a traditional Thanksgiving dinner (which I no longer observe), but a nice meal out nonetheless. 🙂

Friday was a busy day at work catching up on all the things that had accumulated in my inbox while I was away, along with picking up a quite serious safeguarding concern with a senior officer.  I was only too glad to be able to pack up at the end of the day and head home.  That evening was a Big Sing event with my choir where about 250 participants from across the 5 choirs our leader oversees met in one large room in a small assembly hall complex.  Whilst the sound we made was amazing, the PA had to be a bit louder than usual and the chatter of everyone around prior to starting was a bit much, so I put my earplugs in until my usual companions from my choir arrived and sat near me.  I also got to disclose my Autism diagnosis to two of my three usual companions, as an opportunity has not easily presented itself since we started up again in September and I wasn’t quite sure how to share it.  [Coincidentally, I saw this blog, Coming Out Autistic, posted today by Anonymously Autistic which I will also separately address in another post soon.]  I got home much later than expected because the northbound motorway was shut and taking the parallel-running A-road took about 20 minutes longer, thanks to the increased lorry traffic.  I went to bed and fell asleep pretty much straight away.

That brings us to Saturday morning.  Just gone 6:00, I woke up needing the loo and had an absolutely pounding headache – most certainly a migraine.  Did my business and went back into the bedroom, took an Imigran and climbed back into bed to go back to sleep.  Woke up again just gone 9:30, no effect from the Imigran, this time feeling quite nauseated.  Rolled over in bed, nausea got worse – a mad dash to the bathroom to be sick.  I have never had this effect from a migraine before.  Got back into bed and about half an hour or so later, tried rolling over again more gently this time – same again.  Then got myself into a more comfortable stable position where I would try not to move and slept from about 10:10 to 13:40, when Paul came in to see if I wanted lunch and if I was still alive.  My head was still killing me, but I wasn’t hungry.  He offered to bring me a few Pringles to nibble on, which I gratefully accepted, along with my prescription sunglasses (as it was too bright for me to just wear my regular ones without excruciating sensitivity).  After about 10-15 minutes, I thought I’d try going downstairs for a bit, hoping that being vertical and out of the bedroom might help, but I only lasted about 20 minutes before I had to retreat back to bed for another two and a half hours.  By 16:40 when I woke up again, I could not detect a residual headache.  I slowly sat up, fully expecting to be hit with it again, but I wasn’t.  I went downstairs with my regular glasses on and felt – dare I say it – fine.  We managed to keep our plans for the evening with some friends (as I had to postpone my plans with my cousin during the day for obvious reasons) which I was fully expecting to have had to cancel.  After having a bit to eat and a shower, I felt like my usual self again and couldn’t believe I had been laid out by that migraine for so much of the day.

On reflection, I think this was a classic case of Aspie Burnout.  I have seen this a couple of times floating around on the internet, but this best explains the migraine from hell.  I have never had one make me physically ill before – and I hope to never have one like that again – but it clearly was my body & mind’s way of saying, “STOP. Just stop what you’re doing and rest.”  I cannot remember the last time I slept that long, but I clearly needed it; I was even able to fall asleep without issue after we got home from our friends’ house on Saturday night.

As a bit of supplemental reading, please check out this post from Planet Autism BlogAspie Burnout, which also references The Spoon Theory, another good way to look at what I experienced.  I hope by sharing my experiences, others will be able to read them and say, “Yeah! I had that too!” 🌸

‘How can you not hear that??’ communicating sensory difficulties

I have always had sensory sensitivities but never knew that was what they were called; I always felt like others thought I was just being dramatic, so I rarely said anything. It’s nice, in a way, to have these sensory differences acknowledged. 🌸

YennPurkis

I’m not sure if this is the case for anyone else but the older I get, the worse my sensory sensitivities are. I used to be able to eat almost anything and it all tasted good and had a texture which didn’t revolt me. Now I am anxious about going to restaurants in case they have nothing I can happily eat.  I eat exactly the same dish every night unless I get take away, in which case I usually order the same dish! (Except for pizza. I think it’s pretty hard to make pizza horrible). To the horror of my vegetarian, vegan and health conscious friends, the things I am able to eat mostly come from the meat group or the sugar group! I am only 42 so worry that if I get old I might only have one thing I can eat!

I also have an increasingly heightened sense…

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Second appointment…

… And disappointment. I think. I’m not quite sure.

So, I’m home after my second appointment which was with the speech and language therapist I saw last week along with a clinical psychologist and it was primarily the ADOS assessment with more talking on my part. They went away and deliberated over half an hour and came back to say that I don’t fulfil the criteria, but they recognise the difficulties I have, especially around sensory processing, are quite significant. But frankly, I’m just too damn sociable and capable in daily life. I will admit, I cried. A lot. Their debriefing with me took a long time before I was okay enough to drive home. It’ll be a couple of weeks before the report comes back, and they said that I could have a third appointment along with a psychiatrist to evaluate things further. It’s gonna take some time to process all of this because I had it in my head that Asperger’s (Autism) made the most sense to explain “me”. I’m glad they acknowledged the sensory stuff and I’ll be waitlisted to see the Occupational Therapist at some point (they couldn’t confidently tell me how long the wait list is) which will help me at work. I just feel a bit numb right now and I don’t know what to think.