Want a sure-fire* way to make my sort of invisible disability become very VERY visible? That’s right. Be around me when a fire alarm goes off. Being autistic, I have extremely sensitive hearing. I also have a very over-reactive startle reflex. And add to that, a fire alarm means a major, instant break in routine, with absolutely no warning. I also have a very obsessive, pervasive phobia of building fires, stemming from a recurring dream I had as a child. As such, one of the easiest ways to unhinge me for days on end, is being exposed to a fire alarm. I’m pretty sure that I’m not alone in this, somehow…
When I was in elementary school, our fire alarm wasn’t a bell. It wasn’t one of those loud blasts. It was this pitch that started deep, then got higher-pitched over the course of about 3 seconds, repeating. My school had horrid pipes, and nearly every time it rained, the fire alarm would go off. I grew up in a fairly rainy place, and we had fire alarms at least 3-4 times per month, sometimes up to7-8 times per day on rainy days. I never got used to them. Fire alarms are unpredictable. I don’t know when it’s going to go off. And then when it does, it’s loud, and AWFUL-sounding. Anything that has that sound, even for just a few seconds, is enough to make my heart jump, my whole body shudder, and my hands smack against my ears. When the fire alarm went off at elementary school, I would end up huddled in a ball crying. Every.Single.Time. The teachers didn’t know what to do with me, so they’d tell me to get up and get in line with everyone else while we walked out of the building. Then they’d yell at me when I couldn’t respond fast enough. That made me cry more. When we’d finally get outside, I would resume my sitting (or crouching), rocking, and hands-over-ears position. No one ever tried to make the situation better. Ever. Every time there was a fire alarm, I couldn’t concentrate right for the rest of the day, sometimes longer. My elementary school fire drill experiences were some of the worst in my life.
By the time I got to Middle School, the fire alarms sounded different. More like the typical beeping sound (not quite the right word, but your typical fire alarm). I learned the routine. I began to be able to just cover my ears and walk outside, where I could stand and rock and self-soothe until the alarm turned off. There wasn’t the instant shut-down effect anymore. But still, fire drills left me drained and unable to function well for several days.
At this point in my life, when a fire alarm goes off, I can successfully navigate my way out of the building without guidance. I can sometimes even do it without clamping my hands over my ears. But the fire alarm still sends my body into shudders. My heart still races for hours afterwards. I still end up curled up outside rocking, with my hands over my ears, hoping beyond hope, that the awful sound will end soon and that it will be ok. And I still can’t deal with things well for the rest of the day, and often several days post-alarm. My brain takes a while to process things. Does this mean I’m “better”? No. It means I’ve developed more effective ways to get myself out of a potentially burning building. I can even remember to grab my laptop and keys and lock the lab door behind me when I leave. It’s taken me 23 years to get that far, and I think it’s a pretty big accomplishment. But it still has an enormous emotional cost. When I’m in my apartment, and a nearby alarm goes off, for a building not even my own, it sends me tail-spinning. Every time I hear a fire alarm in a film, it makes me jolt. And when the fire alarm is in my own building, all bets are off for how long it takes me to relax afterwards.
Fire alarms are often a traumatic experience in a young autistic person’s world. They are definitely a traumatic experience for me. The most important thing to remember, for me, is that the alarm exists for a reason. It is supposed to be startling, because it may save my life. Over the course of my life, I have learned how to curb my anxiety about the alarm for the few minutes in order to leave the building. I haven’t gotten less sensitive. I haven’t “cured” my fear of fire alarms. I have developed an effective coping mechanism and survival skill. That is the most important part of fire drills. I will never enjoy them (who does, really?) but I can and do survive them and get myself to safety. And that is, after all, the ultimate goal.
*No pun intended, it just came out that way, but I liked the way it sounded.