I was woken up at 6:15am by a text message telling me that the ferry was cancelled again. Because of the storms, I had become stranded in Belfast meaning that I had missed a day of work and couldn’t afford a second day of ‘unauthorised absence’. So with there being no ferries, I had no choice, I would have to fly.
I had sworn never to go back to an airport since I left cruise ships in 2018. One of ways my autism presents itself is an over sensitivity to sound, another is crowds. Airports (being both crowded and noisy) are horrible.
My flight wasn’t until mid afternoon but since the weather was awful (surprise, surprise) and I had my luggage with me, I decided it would be easier to get an early bus. I was very pleased with myself for finding the correct stop and the correct bus without my usual planning and settled in for a nap to pass the 40-minute journey. I woke up to see a peacock staring at me.
The terminal was just as terrible as I expected. Around eight flights were checking in and only two desks were open. As is increasingly normal in departure halls, there were no chairs. I had plenty of time so sat in a café that was closed, until a cleaner told me to leave. The reason, he informed me, that I couldn’t stay there was ‘because of covid’. I didn’t ask any further questions.
One coping mechanism I have developed is finding somewhere quiet. It is rarely difficult to find a quiet space not far away. In the case of Belfast airport, this place was the arrivals terminal (just next door) where I sat in a quiet café for two hours. This (open) café must have had a lower covid risk than the previous (closed) one.
When it was time to check in, the departures hall was even worse than when I left. People and noise everywhere. Another coping mechanism that I have found is headphones playing music which I can regulate and drown out the chanting football fans, yelling hen parties and screaming babies that all wanted to fly at the same time as me. Half an hour later, I was at the front of the queue and my brain was fried. The lady at check in needed my boarding pass, which I didn’t have. By this point, I couldn’t explain and just stared blankly. After what seemed like an eternity, the lady at check in just printed out a boarding pass for me, slapped it on the desk and wordlessly pointed towards departures.
The worst was yet to come. Airport security. The most miserable place imaginable. I am sure there is a policy meaning anyone who smiles here is fired. This is one of the very few places where it is impossible to escape the crowds and the noise. It is also very hard to plan ahead. Will I need to take my shoes off? What about coats? Will laptops need separating? The answers to all these kinds of questions seem to depend on the mood of the officer on duty at the time.
My toothpaste was confiscated. It was a 125ml tube (the maximum is 100ml). The fact it was more than half used didn’t matter. I am still fairly unsure how much of a risk toothpaste is to aircraft security, how many dental cleaning based aviation incidents have there been? I also subscribe to the conspiracy theory that confiscating bottled water is a sneaky way of boosting revenue for the airport – why else is the water so much more expensive on the other side of security? Plus, if it is ok to take baby milk through on condition of tasting, why can’t that apply to all liquids?
Anyway, having to take my headphones off at the last moment makes me very aware of all the noise. The National Autistic Society says people with oversensitivity to sound are likely to experience
- noise can be magnified and sounds become distorted and muddled
- may be able to hear conversations in the distance
- inability to cut out sounds – notably background noise – leading to difficulties concentrating.
I can strongly relate to all of this and do all I can not to shut down entirely. Luckily, the staff don’t pay me too much attention and my baggage went through the machine without a problem. Upon unpacking the bag, I found a large pair of scissors that I had brought with me (and really shouldn’t have got through). Clearly large scissors are safer than half used tubes of toothpaste.
Once through the other side, I found an empty departure gate away from the football fans, hen parties and howling babies where I could decompress for a while.
Even though it was only a couple of weeks ago, I can’t really remember what happened next. I assume I got the plane and then the train home but my brain had melted. I slept for 16 hours that night and woke up hoping I will never have to go in an airport ever again.