How a road trip with a friend softened the emotional confusion of autism.
It is not often one gets to travel to a foreign country with a local guide. Locals can pull you away from the negative chaos of tourist traps and help set you in motion with the rhythm of the the local vibe. Energy assimilation is everything if you really want to experience something new. The people radiate energy they have carefully constructed over their time being a resident. The buildings reflect that energy, spreading that energy from building to building much like satellites beaming information signals that can be intercepted at anytime by our internal machines.
As someone who is autistic, I am particularly sensitive to this energy emitted by societies. Much of this is channeled through my Synesthesia like experience constructed of chords, melodies, and drum beats. Shadow songs, as I like to call them, are the fingerprints of the places I visit, connecting me in a deeper way, transcendent of the immediate bombardment of daily noise made by the human equivalent of chest beating through chatter, engines, and waste odour.
This is also an emotional whirlwind, something many people outside the autism experience fail to recognize. As I adjust to the world around me, I am tumbled through layers of emotions, costumed by physical reactions. I am not without emotion, but rather blanketed in it with so many layers that I find it difficult to unwrap. As I digest a new place, I must tolerate the ebb and flow of intense neurological misfires, much like walking through a crowded new space as someone repetitively flips the lights on and off.
This trip took my friend, let’s call him Billy Elliot, and I on an adventure as escorts for my daughter as she enters college in western Massachusetts. To round out the trip, we decided a side step to Boston was in order, followed by a short tour of Toronto, a city to which I am trying to move. The emotional response to leaving a first born child at college is interesting, and highly complex. Emotions oscillate from excitement to utter fear, through a type of parental pride, and into a strange sadness with a bittersweet coating.
Billy Elliot seemed to be intuitively right on cue, whose mere presence became an embracing comfort, wrapped over me like a warm, weighted blanket. Aside from his warmth, the local colour added moments of joy to the trip. While navigating the public transportation system of Boston, we met a pirate. Not a real pirate, per say, but a man who played a pirate at theme parks, and who was every bit living the role. Proud of his picaroon heritage, he sported shark tooth ear rings, tattoos, and the appropriate amount of facial hair. Should it have been socially acceptable, I believe he would have carried the role to include blackened teeth, but apparently his pirate’s life comes with a decent dental plan.
Searching for a way to keep my nervous system grounded while riding the public bus, I tapped into my supersonic hearing, honing onto the musings of the pirate, who now sat towards the back of the bus. Like a proud father of a famous sports player, he described in detail the many pictures of himself as a pirate on the job to the innocent Bostonians in seats surrounding him. Quite honestly, it was the perfect precursor to the afternoon which would end up including an invisible man, street dancers, and an Italian Restauranteur with rather defined opinions on credit card companies.
Throughout the day, all I could think about was wanting to be near the water. We crossed a nightmarish bridge that spanned the water a few times, but I knew I wanted to be closer. I turned to Billy Elliot and requested we dine on the water’s edge. Though we were able to find a sufficient dinner spot, it was only near the water, not on it. As we concluded eating dinner, I was pressed to the floor by a strange force, like being compressed by a large, heavy machine. Overwhelmed, and trying not to show it, I denied Billy Elliot’s offer to walk to the water edge, to which I am certain he was perplexed. As we awkwardly walked back to the train, my joints began to hurt, and eventually I was so overcome by confusion, I could not have directed myself back to the train on my own. I backed off several steps, following my daughter and Billy Elliot. Everything seemed so small, and I had no idea why.
It would take two days before the reason for the compression would reveal itself. Through a pleasant day at Niagara Falls, composing my new shadow song, and through the fun laughter of taking a road trip with a friend. Nightfall on the second night would be the night the emotional well would overflow. Struggling to understand my emotions surrounding my daughters new adventure, I snuck out of the bed (so as not to disturb anyone), knelt upon the bathroom floor, and cried.
Now in Toronto, I awoke to an intense need to walk. I showered, dressed, and grabbed my smartphone. Assisted by google maps I churned out vigorous steps, one after another, as I made my way to the grocery store. Each step sent a vibration through my body that began to heal me. By the return trip, I was walking with an air of confidence and peace I was desperately needing back in my life.
The people of Toronto are a stark contrast to the people of my hometown of Atlanta. I was pleasantly surprised by the openness and unassuming eye gaze. Random, soft greetings by others on their morning strolls, coupled with their unbounded desire to live among the people of their town, helped me to feel a sense of home. As I concluded my walk, groceries in hand, I stopped just outside the walk to the place where I was staying. I inhaled deeply and calmly realized, I am exactly where I should be at this exact moment in time.
The segway of energy flow from the morning to the early afternoon was slightly cumbersome. The city was bustling with visitors for the PanAmerican games, and the Toronto Blue Jays game. I enjoyed watching the people interact from the safe padding of the car, allowing me to view the city perhaps the way neurotypicals view it, without such an assault on the senses. Once we navigated through the city, we walked to the ferry port.
Standing at the ferry port to cross over to some islands on lake Ontario, I struggled to hold onto that peace. Fortunately Billy Elliot had invited his friend, let’s call him Glen Levitt, and his delightful puppy. The dog, though I am not typically a dog person, seemed to personify my own neurological battle to cope with the surroundings. At one point during the ferry crossings, I found myself knelt down again, but this time I was able to focus my response on comforting the dog. The dog and I provided support to one another, further enforcing the concept of therapy pets.
As the day came to an end, Billy Elliot, Glen Levitt, the puppy, and I stood lakeshore opposite of the city. Merely inches from the waters edge, I stood upon the “rock-stop” beneath the support leg of energy that burst from Toronto. The symphonic flow of light sparkled off of the energy waves, composing a piece of music so grand, yet modest in its upbringing. Random and beautiful, like a chorus of butterflies, yet powerful like water crashing at Niagara, Toronto snuggled deep into my chest, begging to be loved.
Billy Elliot, by this time was seeming more settled in. Though my presence may have caused a ripple in the flow of his daily life, it was feeling more accepted than before. Excited to show me the lovely parks of his hometown in the Toronto suburbs, my shadow songs began to play loudly. Grand willow trees, and the sight of children playing with their families,
made the stroll pleasant, ushering in a new brightened sense of contentment.
Saying goodbye was a tender moment. The tango with friends is always equal parts desire and adjustment, but by the last sunset, it felt as if the choreography was beginning to flow. When people chemistry is coupled with the holistic presence of a city like Toronto, you never want leave.
As for my daughter? We will forever hold the memories of this trip close, fondly looking back on it as the first day of our new life adventure, played out on a bigger stage.