Don’t say a word: an autism short story

Dani wakes up alone at 6am, as she does every morning. She gets up at exactly 6.18, after pressing the snooze button twice. Into the kitchen to make coffee, before forcing herself to take her morning shower. Dani hates the feel of the moving water on her skin; the miniature jets from the shower head feel like a razor being dragged down her skin, and this is a part of the morning routine that she has never quite accepted. But morning showers are a rule, and so Dani undergoes the daily self-scourging ritual that leaves her curled up in tears in a corner of the shower cubicle. She wonders sometimes if a bath would be quicker; less traumatic, but bathing is a self-indulgence, only to happen on a Sunday evening if Dani has behaved herself; if she hasn’t expressed her differences; if she has managed to hide who she really is.

Dani can’t remember the last time she had a bath.

Dragging herself out of the shower, Dani dries her hair with a towel – she can’t use a hairdryer; the noise is too much for her – and puts on the clothes she put out the night before. She is careful about her choice of clothes: they can’t be too tight, or too scratchy, or too silky. Those requirements, combined with the need for professional appropriateness, means that she basically wears the same five dresses in rotation. Dani doesn’t mind that, though; she’s never been particularly fussy about her appearance.

Back in the kitchen, Dani drinks the coffee she made earlier. It’s colder than she likes it – today’s shower has been particularly traumatic – but she drinks it anyway. She eats the same breakfast she has every weekday: yoghurt and blueberries. A final trip to the bathroom to complete the morning ablations before collecting her bag and keys from a hook on the wall by the front door, where she has a picture of Sydney Opera House, and leaving her flat.

The bus stop is seven minutes’ walk away. Dani tries to arrive there two minutes before the bus is scheduled to leave, although the bus is almost inevitably delayed. This always makes Dani anxious, even though she knows that being slightly late into work is never a problem and that everyone understands issues with public transport.

Today the bus is only four minutes late. Dani shows her ticket to the driver and makes her way to her usual seat halfway down the bus, on the raised section over the wheel arch. She gets her MP3 player out of her bag, puts her headphones in and starts listening to this week’s Spotify playlist.

The bus is quiet at this time of the morning and makes good time through the South Downs towards Brighton. Dani looks out of the window at the scenery. The hills make her feel safe and protected. The sun coming through the clouds seem to shine a spotlight on Ditchling Beacon. Dani tries to take a photo, so she can remember the quality of the light when she is away, but the bus moves too quickly and by the time she’s got her mobile phone from her bag the moment has gone.

More people start getting on the bus as it reaches the outskirts of the city and by the time it gets to Preston Park it’s full. Dani closes her eyes and focuses on her breathing. She tries to connect with her ‘safe place’, which she imagines as being vaguely Australian, although she’s never been out of the UK. She doesn’t really like being this close to strangers; she needs her personal space. Not for the first time, she thinks that maybe she should start driving in.

Approaching her stop, Dani starts to become anxious that the man now sitting, snoozing, next to her won’t let her off the bus. She starts tapping her leg, trying to stem the rising tide of anxiety. She reaches across and pushes the buzzer. The man sitting next to her doesn’t move. Dani gets her whiteboard from her bag, scribbles a message and steels herself to touch the man’s shoulder. But the man suddenly jerks awake, utters a curse as he realises he’s missed his stop and jumps off the bus just ahead of Dani. She moves to the side of the pavement, rests her head against the rough surface of the building and tries to calm herself down. It takes a while, and she is late for work.

Walking into her office building, Dani nods at one of her colleagues before walking up too many flights of stairs to her desk. She has to stop a few times, but it’s still better than trying to cope with the lift. She’s tried to use the lift a few times in the past, but there are always too many people crowding in; too much noise; too many people wanting to make small talk that she can’t answer. Logging into her computer, Dani notices that a new starter has scheduled a meeting with her for 10am. She quickly types a response explaining that she doesn’t do in-person meetings and offering a webchat instead. Dani wants another coffee, but someone seems to be having a meeting by the kettle, so she can’t get anywhere near.

No-one thought when she was younger that Dani would be able to hold down a job. But she’s worked almost constantly since leaving university; her work has enabled her to find some freedom and independence. Although Dani has no great love for her work, she realises that it is necessary if she wants to continue with her current lifestyle. So she puts up with the commute; with the office politics that her colleagues think she doesn’t understand; with the comments that people think she doesn’t hear.

Dani’s career has emerged almost by chance. She’s never been able to do interviews, but an initial work experience placement led on to an offer of a full-time job and since then she’s used her network of contacts to move around companies. Dani’s good at what she does, so companies are willing to overlook the fact that she doesn’t always know how to relate to people; that she taps and rocks when she gets anxious; that she struggles with the sensory aspects of office life; that she doesn’t speak.

Dani finishes going through her overnight emails and realises that the earlier meeting has finished. She quickly makes a mug of coffee before anyone else decides to take over the small kitchen area. She’s fussy about coffee; oversensitive to taste and texture, she can only tolerate it black with no sugar, not too darkly roasted, not burnt.

Drinking her coffee – hot this time, unlike her morning attempt, Dani plans her work for the day. She likes to have an ordered list to work through; a set of tasks to complete; something to bring structure to her day. The list is quite short today, as it’s Thursday and Dani doesn’t work on Thursday afternoons.

Dani’s been working half days on Thursday for a year now, although no-one at work knows why. There was some speculation at first, but then office gossip moved on and Dani’s working routine just became part of office life. People still ask occasionally, but Dani just writes ‘personal commitment’ on her whiteboard, which tends to stop further probing. Dani is convinced that her colleagues don’t actually see her as a person, more as part of the office furniture, and she is not far wrong in that assumption. They don’t even ask Dani about her holiday plans, as though Dani couldn’t possibly want to travel. Actually, she longs to travel; she dreams of going to Australia, but has never thought she could get there.

Starting to work through her ‘to-do’ list, Dani is interrupted by the new starter who had emailed her earlier that morning. She demands to know why Dani won’t meet with her, that her time is important and that she insists that Dani attend the meeting. Dani is unprepared for this and starts to panic. She grabs her whiteboard, writes that she can’t talk now; that she can’t talk at all. The new starter doesn’t go away. The voice becomes more strident. Dani looks for an escape route but her way is blocked by the woman with the loud voice. Dani starts tapping, but it doesn’t calm her this time, and the tapping gets closer and closer to hitting but the voice still continues; Dani can no longer make out the words, only the harsh tone. She needs to run but can’t get away. She starts hitting her head against the wall next to her desk, trying to make it all stop, trying to get herself away from the pain that the voice causes her.

At last one of Dani’s colleagues realises what’s going on and finally makes the woman go away. Dani doesn’t notice. She is still in her own world, finding the escape in her head that she couldn’t find in the office. Her colleague has his hand on Dani’s shoulder, which brings her to her senses. Speaking slowly in simple words, as if she was slow-witted, he tells Dani to go to the quiet room. She does, and immediately dissolves into tears of anxiety, and pent-up frustration, and the renewed reminder that she is not like other people. She tries to calm herself; thinks again about her dream of Australia.

By the time Dani returns to her desk, it is almost lunchtime. She completes the last three tasks on her list, sets her out of office message and turns her computer off. Her close colleagues are all in a meeting that Dani isn’t invited to, so no-one notices her leave the office. That’s nothing new; sometimes Dani is convinced she is invisible.

Dani doesn’t need to work, but if she didn’t then she’d hardly see anyone. She’s never really had friends and her mother died last year. Her father is long gone, he left when Dani was 8, and Dani doesn’t know if he’s still alive either. She tried to track him down on social media a few years ago, but all she could find was a half-sister that she didn’t know existed. Dani used to wonder if Sophie is also on the spectrum, but over the years the many photos of a smiling young woman at the centre of a crowd of people leads her to assume not. Dani doesn’t look at Sophie’s profile much any more; they look too much like each other and it makes Dani sad that their lives are so different. She knows Sophie works for an airline, and Dani imagines Sophie travelling to all the places she will never go.

On Thursdays, Dani has lunch at the same coffee shop. The coffee is mediocre, but the café is quiet and Dani can customise her food to avoid all the textures she doesn’t like. Dani sits at the table in the corner and watches people come and go. She makes up fantastical stories about them in her head. She thinks about what she is going to say in her afternoon therapy session.

Dani started going to therapy shortly after her mother died. She remembers the first session, walking into a small, threadbare room and writing on her whiteboard that she wanted help to speak again. Writing note after note as the sessions progressed and she started to trust and open up more. She wrote about how her father left; how her mother started to depend on her more than Dani wanted. She wrote about her time at university; how her lack of speech and lack of friends led her tutor to recommend a meeting with student support, leading to the twin diagnosis of autism and selective mutism. But still no speech came.

Finishing her food, Dani orders a mint tea – a change from her usual coffee, but she’s starting to get a headache and thinks that more caffeine is probably not desirable. She checks the emails on her phone and types a quick status update on Twitter. She doesn’t have many followers, but it gives her some kind of connection to the outside world. The café starts to get busier and louder; Dani turns up the volume of her music and spreads her stuff over the table so she doesn’t look like the easiest target for a table-share. She’s learnt that the hard way: any signs of weakness, and the space that she has tried to create for herself will vanish. If asked to share a table, she will simply leave. That’s happened before, and it’s made her afternoon session practically worthless; the time spent mainly on trying to calm down rather than covering the ground that she needs to cover.

While she waits for the mint tea to cool down, Dani checks the paperwork she needs for later today. She checked it all last night, as well, but wants to check it again in case something has changed; in case she has forgotten something vital. But it all seems to be in order. Then she goes over her notes for the session. She doesn’t have many sessions left, so she wants to make sure everything is covered.

Dani didn’t think she’d be in therapy for this long. She had assumed that her mother’s death would be some sort of catalyst for change; that four – or six – weeks would be sufficient for her to feel better; for her to be able to move on. But the damage went deeper than Dani had realised, and it was six months of frantic note-writing before she finally disclosed what was stopping up her voice.

Dani’s thoughts were interrupted by a group of students coming into the café after a lecture. Their confidence – bordering on arrogance – intimidates Dani; she never knows how to react to loud and boisterous people. She is always scared that they will notice her; that they will mock; that she will yet again be marked out as different, as sub-human. That’s one thing she likes about getting older: it is an effective invisibility cloak against the young.

It wasn’t always that way. Dani remembers being their age; desperate to fit in, she started engaging in ever more wild and risky behaviours, in the hope that being more “up for it” than the others it would make up for the conversations she was unable to have; would make up for the defectiveness inside her. It didn’t work. Dani doesn’t remember why she ever thought it might, but she’s never been able to read what people want from her.

That’s one thing that came up early in Dani’s therapy. She used that as a test of whether the therapist could be trusted with the deeper hurt. She’s still not sure whether he can be, but she has told him anyway.

Lost in thought, Dani hasn’t realised that she’s now running late. Panicking now, she runs to where she normally meets her therapist. They realised a while ago that Dani found it difficult to walk into his office alone, so they meet at a point outside and walk in together. But he isn’t there. Dani doesn’t know what to do. She stands there for a while, caught in her own indecision, breathing heavily, soundless tears running down her face. Maybe she should go to the office? But Dani doesn’t know whether he will be expecting that or not, and without clear instruction she simply doesn’t know what to do.

A text message comes in from Dani’s therapist. His publisher wants to talk to him; he can’t meet today; he will see her next time.

For most people, that would be a minor annoyance, soon forgotten. For Dani, it is a disaster. She can’t process what is happening; can’t think of a new plan. He has never let her down before, and today was particularly important to her as they won’t see each other for a month.

Dani moves to the edge of the pavement, sits against the wall, oblivious to the curious faces observing her distress. She can’t think; can barely breathe. She’s vaguely aware of someone asking if she’s OK and manages to nod. She isn’t aware that it’s started raining.

She doesn’t know how long it takes, but eventually Dani realises that she is shivering. This prompts her to go back into the coffee shop she was in earlier as she can’t think what else to do. Someone gives her a towel and a cup of tea.

Dani thinks that she won’t see her therapist any more. She doesn’t trust people easily, and when someone lets her down once she doesn’t forgive. She wonders whether there’s another therapist she could see, but doesn’t know whether it’s worth it any more.

The breakthrough had come two months earlier. Dani thought it was just going to be a normal session, but then her therapist asked again about her parents. Dani had always ducked the question, but something about that day, or the way the question was asked, or out of sheer frustration about the lack of progress made her answer. Writing frenetically, she told him about the day her father walked out. How her mother had blamed her – if Dani had been normal, her father would not have felt the need to start another family – and when Dani tried to object, her mother, Elaine, had slapped her and told Dani that if she said one more word Elaine would kill herself and it would all be Dani’s fault. Dani wrote that, since then, she has tried to be good; she has managed not to speak; she has learnt to cry quietly, when she must cry at all. She wrote that, even in Elaine’s final days, when her mother berated her for not having a kind word to say, she couldn’t say a word. But now Elaine is dead; now there are no consequences if Dani speaks, but she doesn’t know how.

The therapist asked how that made Dani feel. He wouldn’t let her write it down, waited and watched until Dani finally said her first word in twenty years.

“Sad. It made me sad.”

Dani remembers then how the words made her cry. Not soundlessly this time, but the tears of despair and hopelessness and fear; the emotions that she hadn’t allowed herself to verbalise coming out in a wail of grief and pain. She remembers how, desperate for comfort, she tried to turn to her therapist only to be rebuffed – gently, but still a rejection. She recalls how he told her, while she was still sobbing, that he wouldn’t let her use the whiteboard in their sessions any more.

Dani realises now that her therapist is actually quite a stern man.

So the sessions continued, and Dani gradually became more practiced in talking rather than writing. She still didn’t have the confidence to use her voice outside of the sessions. She still felt sad, not just about her mother but that there didn’t seem to be anyone who would speak to her with kindness. She allowed the therapist to write an article about how he’d helped her find her voice; she didn’t feel as though she could refuse. She guesses it’s that article that the therapist is speaking to the publisher about, and she hopes that it brings him the recognition that he wants.

But Dani won’t know; she doesn’t want to see him again. She’s ready to move on.

Dani smiles her thanks at the woman behind the counter at the coffee shop and walks to the bus stop to get an early bus home.

An uneventful journey home. It’s much quieter at this time of the day, between the school and office rush hours. Dani wonders if she should change her hours to take advantage of this quiet time, but that’s a decision she can leave to another day.

Back in her flat, Dani picks up the suitcase she packed last night, checks her documents one last time and leaves the flat again, dropping her spare keys in her neighbour’s mailbox on her way out. Into the waiting taxi, her headphones blocking out the chatter from the taxi driver. Then to the airport, where she finds the check-in desk. The woman behind the desk has a nametag that says “Sophie”. She smiles as she hands Dani the boarding pass and wishes Dani a pleasant flight. Dani replies with the first words she has spoken outside the therapy room in twenty-five years.

“Thank you. I’m sure it will be.”

Through security, and into the departure lounge. Then the flight is called: the assistance person comes to find Dani and together they walk past the queue waiting to board. Dani settles down in her window seat and soon afterwards the plane takes off into the darkening sky.

Dani looks at the sunset out of the window of the aeroplane. She hopes she is going to like Australia.

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