When Autism Met a Street Performer


Autism, especially at the ‘higher-functioning’ end of the spectrum, is one of those delightful can’t-see disabilities. It allows the individual to blend in to the neuro-typical world with no real outward indication that all might not be as presumed. There is no wheelchair, no walking aid, or often an obvious carer. Walking among us every day are those with invisible disability. I know it from the Fibromyalgia side of the fence, but I also know it for ASD.


So, when, on a recent trip to London, we stopped in Covent Garden to rest weary feet watching a Street Performer, we blended in to the crowd as well as any other. Sat on some steps with our three children in front of us, watching a street performer do his act, seemed like a good idea.


That is, until Boo was picked. Without knowing it, Boo looks like a happy go lucky confident kid. He also looks a good 2-3 years older than he is. Without realising it, the kid has inherent style, a cheeky twinkle in his eye, and cool trainers. He seemed like a good candidate. He didn’t look Autistic. No one ever does. It doesn’t come with a ‘look’ whatever the masses presume.


And that’s when an own goal strikes. He does such a bloody good job of fitting in that there was nothing to give the street performer a hint to what lay beneath: a kid who wouldn’t understand his level of sarcasm, jokes, and who would positively freak the moment he realised there was an audience of about 200 with eyes on him.


To say my heart went in to my mouth as Boo took centre stage is an understatement. Should I have stepped in? Knowing it was likely going to be a disaster? Or should I have done what I did and hoped that Boo would relish the challenge, rise to the occasion, and pull it off? I didn’t want to wipe his confidence without giving him a chance.


And then the inevitable happened. He didn’t ‘get’ that he didn’t have to do exactly what the Street Performer said. He didn’t ‘get’ that the jokes weren’t being made at his expense. He didn’t ‘get’ that surrounding him were 200 people thinking he was inherently cool, and just another kid.


Instead, after a good 5 minutes of performing awesomely, his face crumpled in to utter angst, hands over ears, paralysed to the spot, with sobs forming from the pit of his belly. To give him his dues, the Street Performer’s radar went straight on and Boo was whisked back to us in seconds.


And then came an agonising half an hour of meltdown mixed with confidence-shattering. He didn’t understand. He thought he looked stupid. He thought people were laughing at him because he’s different. He wanted to go home. He wanted to hide. He felt a failure, and no good.


I’ll tell you this, trying to deal with an ASD meltdown in the hustle and bustle of Covent Garden on a Friday evening is near damn impossible. Noise, the mainstay of a meltdown continuing, is hard to avoid, as are people, although I’ve learned to sod the stares. Two little girls who could easily get lost if one parent isn’t entirely focused on them in the mix, left me shielding Boo single-handedly against a shop front, uttering the words I hoped would help calm him.


We got there. He calmed down to those heart-wrenching choked sobs. He took the words I said and turned it around. He, with shaken confidence and a down-hearted feeling, agreed to try and turn things back around so we could enjoy the rest of our outing. A yummy crepe later and he was back on fighting form (as long as we didn’t go back near the street performers).


And so, for that moment, the invisibility of Autism sucked. I wish Boo could have been spared what he viewed as utter humiliation. But I couldn’t be more proud. He got up there and tried. He lost it, but he turned it around. He overcame a mountain and proved his spirit wasn’t squashed. And I’m also proud of Pip and Bug. Without breaking their stride they realised, accepted, and supported their ASD brother recognising this was one of those ‘Aspergers Wobbles’ as they know them.


Pip and Bug, usually mischievous boundary pushing imps, snapped straight in to well-behaved mode, gave Boo space, but most importantly welcomed him back with, only metaphorical, open arms, that allowed him out of his backed in corner with ease. They weren’t embarrassed or ashamed, just concerned. They showed maturity beyond their six years, and for them and Boo I was proud.


So, street performers and ASD don’t mix too well. New lesson learned. But by heck I’m proud of these kids.




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