Community Voices


Life in a shelter, from the autistic perspective

“You can tell from the lines on her face, You can see that she’s been there, Probably been moved on from every place, ‘Cause she didn’t fit in there” –Phil Collins, “Another Day In Paradise”

Rules and regulations, written and unwritten. The former are hard enough for people on the autism spectrum to follow, the latter can be undecipherable hieroglyphics.

Let’s start with what is meant by being “on the spectrum,” to have an autism spectrum disorder. First, it does not mean a person is mentally retarded, which is an outdated term. It means they have a sensory processing disorder, or perhaps several. You probably know someone who is sensitive to sudden, loud sounds, or gets overwhelmed by intense smells, or is startled when approached from behind. Perhaps you know someone who has all of these reactions, and even more, to unfamiliar stimuli.

The other image of autism much described in the media and psychiatric literature is that of the isolate: the young man or woman in a corner of their room, organizing their toys and clothes by color and height; who can spend hours pouring over a book and will become uncontrollable if compelled to put it down. The overweening image here is the individual desire to have a modicum of order in the midst of what is, to them, chaos.

Now imagine that individual, treated or untreated, entering a homeless shelter. All those unfamiliar sights and sounds, all the procedures one must go through before being able to eat or sleep, having your bags and your person checked, trying to focus on what the person in uniform is saying to you, knowing it’s important but getting lost amidst a swirl of unchecked conversations. It’s like being in a maelstrom of swirling colors, smells and sounds, all demanding your attention. It’s difficult enough to separate signal from noise in a more organized environment.

The description I’ve given you is meant to be general. It is reflective of my own experience, as well as the experiences of others on the spectrum. It is also intended to give you an idea of how an already traumatic experience–becoming homeless, entering a shelter–can be even more traumatic, causing emotional and physical reactions that shelter staff may not be trained or prepared for.

Contrary to popular belief, people on the spectrum can be extremely high functioning and succeed in fields of strenuous endeavor. That’s why it is called a spectrum: at one end you have people who are overwhelmingly sensitive to stimuli; on the other, you have the so-called Asperger’s cases, adults who are socially and intellectually high-functioning but who sometimes appear awkward in public. Research in the last few years has determined that a large part of this social awkwardness is due to the absence of mirror neurons in the brains of folks on the spectrum.

As you can glean from the name, mirror neurons are brain cells specially adapted to aping the behavior of other humans. “Monkey see, monkey do” is a bit of an oversimplification, but these neurons are key for humans in learning adaptive behavior. In the absence of these cells, people on the spectrum are forced to learn these adaptive behaviors by rote: for example, what to do when entering a room, how to greet people, how to pick up verbal and non-verbal cues that tell you if the person you’re speaking with is attentive or bored. This can take years, or decades, and may never be complete.

Are you asking yourself why I’m only speaking of homeless people on the spectrum? Well, quite simply, I can only write what I know. I can’t tell you what it’s like to be a genius, or schizophrenic. I can tell you what it’s like to be overwhelmed on a daily basis by stimuli, and why this must be taken into account by those clinicians, therapists and others dealing with those who are mentally disordered.

Consider it a heads-up: the next person you encounter who is visibly upset, either yelling or withdrawing, is not simply making drama. Most likely, they are trying desperately to cope with an unfamiliar, chaotic environment in the only ways they know.

Over the course of the next few essays I will be touching on mental disorders and how they present amongst the homeless population. That will mean unearthing some skeletons. This is unfortunate, but necessary, if we are to make any progress as a society in treating the intertwined problems of addiction, mental disorders, and homelessness. Better days are coming… if we work for them.