The worst sensory experience of my life

On Saturday night, I endured the worst sensory experience of my life.

I was walking to the train station from work, and out of nowhere I was attacked by the worst wind imaginable. Wind so horrendous that I don’t even think the word “wind” is adequate to characterize it. It attacked me with a viciousness and brutality so severe that it felt like sharp claws ripping and tearing at my clothing and skin. It felt like being stabbed by a million icy cold knives, my skin shredded to pieces. I was in such atrocious pain that I was literally screaming in agony while I sprinted down the block to the train station. (There were a few people out and about who almost certainly thought I was insane; I’m lucky that no one called the cops.)

It was torture.

In my opinion, weather is simply not supposed to be the way it was during that torturous walk. Obviously, part of existing on earth is the fact that on different days, you get different types of weather. There are warm days, cold days, sunny days, cloudy days, rainy days, and, yes, windy days. But this was not merely a windy day. This was an abomination. Air is simply not supposed to act like this.

The wind was so bad, in fact, that even inside the train station, even after I had angrily stomped up the stairs to the second level of the station, ice cold wind was still blowing through the train station.

The experience was so horrific that even hours after returning home, I could not recover. No amount of being inside a warm, wind-free house, or drinking hot tea, could help me to feel better. The only thing I wanted was to scream and scream and scream at the top of my lungs, and to smash every building on that evil block into pieces until all of the apartments and all of the storefronts were reduced to a heap of rubble.

The experience itself lasted only a minute or so, because I was only a block away from the train station when I was assaulted by the abominable wind, but I could not get it out of my brain. I re-experienced it again and again while I was lying in bed, trying futilely to fall asleep. The sensation of the wind ripping and tearing at my face and neck, and buffeting and battering my body, is permanently etched into my consciousness.

As an autistic person, sensory sensitivities (finding certain sensory experiences unpleasant, distressing, and even painful, which most people are not bothered by) are a big part of my life.

As you may have guessed, wind is my biggest sensory sensitivity. Noise is one as well, particularly sudden noises that come out of nowhere. Light is another, particularly when it is at the wrong angle, shining directly into my eyes.

Obviously, although most people would likely not enjoy spending time in such strong wind, my autism is why the wind felt so incredibly distressing and painful to me.

I am certain that if other people experienced what I did during that horrible walk, avoiding creating the conditions that cause such strong gusts of wind would be the number one priority of every city and town government, every architectural firm, and every civil engineering department. If other people experienced what I did, they would do whatever it took to prevent such an experience from happening to another person ever again. Even if that meant demolishing buildings and rebuilding them in a different place. Even if it meant razing entire city blocks and entire neighborhoods.

But other people do not experience what I do.

So I’ve been thinking about steps that I could take to decrease the odds of having a repeat of this experience. As I’ve embraced my autistic identity more and more, I’ve been thinking about ways to accommodate my sensory sensitivities, ways to avoid being subjected to the things that cause me discomfort and distress, ways to hopefully allow me to have a better quality of life.

The autistic community is pretty much in agreement that sensory sensitivities do not diminish with repeated exposure. Autistic people can’t “get used to” the things that bother us, or learn to tolerate them over time. If anything, it’s the opposite: the more we are exposed to something that bothers our sensory sensitivities, the more it bothers us.

Wind is a difficult thing to avoid, however.

It is impossible to predict with any degree of certainty whether any particular street or block will be particularly windy at any particular time. Yes, some streets are more predisposed to wind than others, but on the Saturday night from hell, a street that has frequently had terrible wind in the past was fine, while the abomination happened on a street that has never been a problem, wind-wise, before. I could choose a route to the train station that avoids both of these streets, but there’s no guarantee that a different street won’t randomly happen to have terrible wind.

Because wind is just that – random. I’m sure there are scientific laws that explain why some places tend to be more windy than others (I’m not a scientist, so I don’t know the details), but any prediction is inexact and uncertain. I check my weather app each morning, but it is an imprecise guide. There have been days when the app shows a wind warning and/or an icon signifying strong wind, but once outside I don’t find the wind to be particularly bad. Conversely, there have also been days with no wind warning and no icon, on which I nonetheless find the wind to be absolutely awful.

Clothing such as scarves, down parkas, and hats with ear flaps help, but don’t prevent suffering entirely when the wind is really bad. It’s also not really socially acceptable to wear such clothing in spring, and wind can really bother me in that season as well, even though the temperature is not as cold.

I could take Uber or Lyft to and from work to minimize my amount of walking, but that would be much more expensive than the train, and I also enjoy riding the train much more than I enjoy being in a car one-on-one with another person, with whom I feel obligated to make small talk.

I could buy a car (something that I don’t currently own) and drive everywhere that I need to go as opposed to taking public transportation or walking, but that would be quite expensive as well. Plus, there’d still be a chance of getting attacked by a gust of wind in the parking lot.

The only way to avoid wind entirely is to never leave one’s house, and that is neither a practical option nor a desirable one. I wouldn’t be able to work, for starters, at least not at my current job. Plus, I really enjoy running errands such as going to the post office, bank, convenience store, and grocery store. I also enjoy walking around in both natural and urban environments and taking photos of the things that I see. And walking is good exercise, which is valuable as well.

Having said all of that, I am trying to manage risks wisely and minimize exposure to the things that bother my sensory sensitivities when it makes sense to do so.

Yesterday, for example, with Saturday’s abomination still fresh in my mind, I decided to take the bus to the downtown area to buy face cream at the drug store, deposit my paycheck, and get a coffee at Dunkin. Normally I would walk, but as I was about to leave my house, I realized that the bus was due to come soon, and I was able to catch it without waiting a long time. The timing of my errands worked out so that I was able to easily take the bus back home as well. All in all, I was able to complete the tasks I needed to do, walk around the downtown and observe all the goings-on there, and snap a few photos of the bright and snowy day, without being subjected to significant wind.

While wind (like noise or light) is impossible to entirely avoid or accurately predict, I am learning that there are measures that I can take to minimize my exposure. Gradually, I am finding ways to enjoy the activities that are important to me without being subjected to unnecessary distress from my sensory environment.