Elbow Room

Cars honk to let you know they are passing, not to warn you of on coming danger, simply to say – “Hey! I’m here”!

Clothing is woven with bright, vibrant, colors in stark contrast to the dull, dust-covered streets and building.

Smells from wonderful spices to not so wonderful animal poop waft through the air.

People, cars, motorbikes, bicycles, buses and carts push their way along the street.  This is India, each and every day.  I have been here four times now and these facts never cease to amaze me.

I work a lot with individuals on the Autism spectrum.  I have often wondered what it must be like for them to go about day-to-day with sensitivity to everything.  My son is one such person I struggle to understand.

India has helped me to have a view into his plight a bit more.  Today we took a guided tour through downtown Gujarat at the height of rush hour.  It was loud, smelly and close…really, really close.  At one point I was literally walking on top of someone else’s shoes – good thing they had on heavier shoes and not flip-flops or I would have crushed their toes with my massive feet!

Seriously, though, the country of India is not a place I originally would want to take someone with personal space issues.  I watch and wonder just how many people can legally fit into an auto rickshaw, a vehicle about 1/3 the  size of a VW Bug.  So far this trip the record number has been nine.   The Vespa record stands at five – an entire family sitting from handlebars to a small luggage rack on the back-end.

Truly, the people of India have carpooling down to a science.  It is one way to keep many vehicles off the road, but a disaster waiting to happen.  You can see people hanging on car doors that swing open and closed as the jeep travels down the road.  There are stories in the India Times of multiple children being killed on the way to school in overcrowded vans.  But, the poverty level and cost of fuel necessitate this mode of travel, it’s that or walk, which many people do, so many that Gujarat has begun to include not only bike lanes, but separate pedestrian lanes in their future road development.

India has given me some insight into my son’s daily struggles.  Today as we were heading out and the van walls began to close in around me, I had an honest to goodness panic attack.  I couldn’t bring myself to get in the car knowing that the small space would hold all six of us, plus two guides.  I backed up and started to retreat to my room, but thankfully, Steve and Jennifer wouldn’t let me go.  They told me to sit in the front next to the driver, which made it a bit easier for the first part of this trip.  At first, I did my best to make myself small and closed my eyes when the driver crossed intersections.  As the adventure went on I relaxed and enjoyed the trip.  I found it hard to believe something so simple could affect me so much.

But would my son, and many like him have been able to accomplish the same?  Autism Spectrum Disorders are not confined to areas with lower population numbers, so how do people with the disability adapt to this type of harsh environment?  Perhaps its really not the over stimulation of senses in the same way that I would logically understand, but instead, an attack on the norm.  Perhaps these individuals in India would have difficulty with wide open spaces and quiet.  This could lead to an even greater understanding on my part of the disability and the challenges faced by individuals on the spectrum.  Perhaps this is why the numbers in America just began to climb, we have been looking in the wrong places with the wrong understanding, well, not really wrong – but skewed.  We (American’s) take for granted that we have the best of situations, but Autism could be an equalizing factor.  I have seen, first hand, how strict routine is necessary to successfully travel with my son.  It didn’t really matter where we were, as soon as complete change in routine was absent – I was in for a rough road.  Once I was able to establish a routine, things like personal space and noise took a back seat.

With that in mind, let me very quickly return to my first sentence of this post, attacks on each and every sense we know can be expected when traveling to India.  It is therefore important that you prepare not only yourself, but your companions for the onslaught by removing the anxiety that one might feel by lack of routine.  Removing just that one anxiety may be enough to allow your brain to deal with the other attacks.


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