This is another post that I hesitated to write, because I don’t have any answers! But perhaps the act of sharing my difficulties in this area is an answer of sorts, in that it might offer comfort and reassurance to those who might be asking themselves, ‘am I the only person who does this’? In fact, this would be a kinder question than the ones that I used to ask myself, which were along the lines of, ‘why are you so stupid?’ or, ‘why can’t you do something simple that everyone else can do?’
Let’s take a perfectly straightforward task – finding an address in London where I haven’t been before. I have got the address, I have got googlemaps on my phone (in fact I have got two versions just in case), I have got a paper map with the route highlighted. What could possibly go wrong? I am at a loss to explain it, but something always does! I can find the road but not the building; I can find the building but not its entrance; I can find the road and the building and the entrance but once inside I can’t find any sign of the seminar I’m supposed to be attending… It’s as if I have entered some sort of twilight zone.
On one memorable occasion, I was going on a training course, and the location was (let’s invent one) 13, Bishop Gardens. I managed to find the rough vicinity, but the roads were a confusing mass that didn’t look like the map (this happens a lot; I have no idea why). There was also a Bishop Road and a Bishop Court and a Bishop Avenue and there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the numbering. Although I had arrived with plenty of time to spare, now I was in danger of being late, which I cannot bear, and was getting hot and flustered running about clutching my map.
Finally I found a no 13, and arrived just behind some people whom I assumed were fellow course attendees. They held the door for me, but I stopped at the empty reception desk while they swiped themselves into the corridor beyond. Not course attendees, then. I waited at the desk, and no-one came. I couldn’t see any signage for the course. No-one else entered the building. It was getting near to the course start time. Finally I worked out that I was in 13 Bishop Avenue instead of 13 Bishop Road. I would have to run out and have another go. Except that I couldn’t work out how to open the door. There was no door release button. I was stuck in the lobby of a building where I had no business being, late for a course, no-one had entered or left for 20 minutes, and it felt as if I might be trapped forever.
I can’t remember how I got out, only that I arrived at the course hot and dishevelled and distressed. This is just one of so many incidents; there have been thousands. Trying to get out of an unfamiliar station & following the ‘way out’ arrows until they petered out at the far end of a dark platform. Trying to find the car park having had my train journey disrupted and been forced to get out at a tiny rural station, being confused by the ‘way out’ arrows that contradicted each other and walking two miles in the dark (very frightened) before walking all the way back and finding the car park about 10 feet from where I’d got off the train. Running into work following googlemaps on my phone and ending up running over 10km (instead of 3 km) because I hadn’t realised that a glitch on the app was sending me hugely astray. Somehow getting onto the wrong floor at a previous job and thinking that the office move had gone ahead earlier than planned (it was an empty floor with everything packed up) and that I had been left behind, and ringing my boss at the time to ask where everyone was. (They were on the floor above.) Getting so lost out riding that (pre mobile phones) I had to stop and ask a householder to phone someone to come and get me, and once or twice had to let the horse find their own way home.
On one occasion, I was following signs for a bridleway I hadn’t found before. Predictably, they petered out on the headland of a field and I had forgotten which direction I’d come from. I blundered about for a bit getting more & more upset, then finally gave the reins to the horse. She set off purposefully down one side of the field, then turned a corner and continued up the next side. When we got to the next corner, I thought she was going to go down the third side, and I thought, stupid horse! You’ve got no more idea where we are than I have. You’re just going all the way around this field! But then she stopped, looked around and barged through a very thick hedge, and I’d have been scraped off if I hadn’t quickly lifted my knees above the saddle. And ten minutes later, she’d found the road and I knew where we were.
And I did the same thing out running, following footpath signs. The footpath had been ploughed up, but I orientated myself with two tall trees and headed across the field towards them. Once I’d got to the other side, unsurprisingly I couldn’t find any signs telling me where to go next. I was faced with a large ditch full of brambles. After running about trying to find a sign and failing, I decided to go back the way I’d come. I couldn’t see my footprints in the plough though and I must have run back at a different angle because then I couldn’t find the bridge I’d crossed to get onto the field. The field wasn’t flat, so I hadn’t been able to see right across it. So then I was running up and down beside a different ditch trying to find the little bridge. How can a bridge disappear when I’d crossed it 30 minutes ago? And this time I had no horse to help me.
Why do I get lost so much, despite my earnest, careful preparations? I have a few vague theories. One is that some people with autism can’t see in pictures (some of us are the other way & are very, very good at it – I’m not!) so that it’s hard to visualise from a map where we’re going. Another is that when I’m anxious, I am hovering on the edge of shutdown, and when that happens, my brain switches to ‘off’ so I am deserted by logic. There might be some interaction with the literal mindedness – if an arrow says, ‘this way’, then I will follow it and be completely bewildered when it doesn’t take me where I wanted to go. If driving, I think it’s partly the shutdown thing and also the pressure of having to make a split second decision. Do I turn off here or not? As I have said before, all possibilities look equally likely to me, and when driving it isn’t usually possible to stop and have a think!
What can be done about it? As with so many things, even if it can’t be ‘cured’, it is possible to nibble away at the edges to lessen the impact. For me, what helps is to make good preparations. I examine the route on googlemaps. I get a picture of the building, if possible, so I know what I’m looking for. I have a paper copy of the route. On my paper copy, I highlight the route to make it clearer. On the same piece of paper, I write down the address, the name of whoever I am meeting and at least one phone number. The act of having done this much preparation clears some bandwidth so that I move a step away from shutdown. If I get lost – I have the address and (if I really have to!) I can call someone. I don’t have to worry so much about the what-ifs which makes a shutdown less likely. I am unembarrassed to get someone to go with me. I am unembarrassed to ask someone to be on standby so that if the worst comes to the worst, I can share my location on whatsapp and they can text me where to go and what to do.
I always leave plenty of time. Getting stressed about being late will only add to the likelihood of shutdown, and the last thing I want is my brain going offline. And finally, and most importantly – I have stopped giving myself a hard time about it! I have already written about my spiky profile. I have given myself full permission to be good at some things and hopeless at others. I already know that I am very prone to getting lost, so when it happens I just think of it as creating yet another funny story rather than being the end of the world. Getting lost doesn’t make me stupid – it’s how I’m wired.
So – while getting lost isn’t much fun, we may be able to lessen the possibility by good preparation, it all adds to life’s rich tapestry and we should congratulate ourselves for being unafraid to keep trying.