Last week I went along to a Scottish Women with Autism Network (SWAN) lunchtime drop in meeting. It was the first I had managed to get along to although I had connected with the group online several weeks before this.
The venue often chosen for these drop in meetings is a public cafe within a large venue in Glasgow’s city centre. I believe it is usually reasonably quiet but on this occasion part of the venue had clearly been hired for a graduation event and the cafe was packed with people who had gathered before the graduation began. So the first impression I received was of the noise and the seething mass of people. Not a comfortable feeling at all.
The group is identified by a particular toy that is placed on the table. I nervously walked the length of that cafe looking for a table with that toy on it and wondering if I was in the right place. Eventually right at the far end of the cafe area I found them. There were two women sitting at the table, neither of them was the main organiser I had been in touch with via email. They told me that two others were waiting to try and get drinks at the cafe bar. I sat down and awkwardly waited, the two there did explain that others were also expected and that the organiser was running late. I decided that as I was hungry and thirsty I’d go and queue up for something to eat and drink too.
The queue was busy and slow moving but after a while I got a sandwich and hot chocolate and went back to the table. Others had arrived by that time and I was introduced. I used my food as a distraction and to help me ground as I was feeling uncomfortable. After a bit I noticed the woman diagonally opposite me rubbing her ears and I commented that the noise was bad. That seemed to break the ice between us a bit and we started talking. Other conversations were taking place next to us and the background noise from the venue meant that it wasn’t easy to hear each other and I found it hard to focus but we managed.
Not long after that the organiser arrived. She said hello to me briefly at that point but she needed to try and find another first time visitor who was coming down from Aberdeen. I started to realise that although there were not many of us there some had come a much longer physical distance to be there than I had.
The venue started to get quieter as people moved off for the graduation. Although the other women were friendly I was still feeling uncomfortable and overwhelmed when the organiser returned with the woman from Aberdeen. They both sat at the end of the table I was at.
Conversations seemed to flow round me as women who had faced disbelief from GPs, friends and even family over getting a diagnosis of autism compared some of the experiences of their journeys.
I felt out of place. I am still waiting for assessment so while I am pretty sure I am on the spectum I don’t yet have that clarity that comes from a formal diagnosis. Not everyone needs it or wants it I know that but I feel it would help me to have it. I also felt a bit out of place because the GP I saw (not my usual one actually either) listened to me when I brought the possibility up and agreed to refer me without me having to feel like I was hitting a brick wall over it. I’m also lucky in that no-one in my immediate family has been dismissive of the possibility when I’ve spoken to them about it. I don’t think work really believe me yet but they’ve not openly said anything dismissive, just that nothing would be done util a formal diagnosis was received.
As I sat there feeling overwhelmed and out of place tears started welling up in my eyes. The organiser, after chatting with the other first timer, started up a conversation with me and another woman whose name I didn’t catch when she got up to get something to drink herself asked me if I wanted anything and very kindly brought me a tea. I began to calm a little. After a bit though I noticed the time and decided it was time to head for home so I could be there in plenty of time before the first arrival home (which would be Rowan that day). I made my goodbyes, explaining that I get twitchy if I’m not there in good time. Others nodded in understanding and then I left.
By that time I felt an urgent need to get home, to get away from all these people (the venue was quieter than it had been but walking through the city centre was moderately busy too). I met up with Neil on Argyll Street and walked at a fast pace towards where he had the car parked.
A few days later and I still feel unsure about the whole experience. The other women seemed nice and I think I got on ok with the couple that I did talk to. I’d like to try and get to know them a bit better. The venue though was a difficult one with all the noise and so many other people around. I’m not very comfortable in groups of people where I don’t know some of those there. A group where I don’t know anyone is even harder for me but I managed.
The SWAN group is a valuable resource as it is peer connection and gives a sense of validation and sharing even via the facebook group page. I’m glad I was directed to them even if I don’t manage to attend group meetings often in the future.