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Autism and gigs

I like live music. I used to do music photography all the time. I’ve been lucky enough to photograph quite a few big names too. It’s a pretty fantastic thing to be able to do. You’re right at the front and someone you enjoy is playing music while you photograph them. You’re in the moment. Totally concentrating on getting the photos while enjoying the music. It’s such good fun. I’ve moved on from those days now and only really go to gigs to see the band playing live. Every summer my wife and I go to Bluedot Festival for the entire weekend. Being autistic makes it complicated.

Lets break down some of the classic issues;

— sensory overload due to sound and light
— inability to focus on just the event and block the rest of the crowd out
— crowds and all the unknown variables
— being in the way and feeling like I shouldn’t be there (I’m 6ft5 and often in the way)

I worry for weeks up to the gig because what if my sensory issues meant I picked up on something I couldn’t control and ruined the gig for me? It’s a big crowded room with so many unknown variables. When I’m at a gig as an audience member I’m on edge because I never know what the crowd will do. At any moment someone could start smoking or worse… talking. I know it sounds silly but I’m already at 9 on the anxiety level by the time I get in there. Just one little thing I’m at 10 and everything is ruined. My love of that band. The night. My mind for days after as I re-live the event over and over again. So I worry before any gig.

My sensory issues pick up on all the audio and the flashing lights can get to me too so I’ve started wearing sunglasses at gigs. I guess I just look cool or maybe pretentious. Let’s go with cool. To help with audio based sensory overload I wear ear plugs during gigs. Something from my music photography days. I found them to reduce the volume to a reasonable level and they also make the sound seemingly better too. Unfortunately it also helps to clarify speech. So if someone stands next to me and talks all through the gig then I can hear every word and being autistic means its hard for me to filter out.

I’m a big fan of the album “The Race for Space” by Public Service Broadcasting. It uses archival audio from the space race and tells the journey of that era. We got the chance to see them live in Manchester a few years ago and I was really looking forward to it. That means then that I worry. Unfortunately at this gig there was a couple who were talking so loud they got shushed during the quiet tracks. The quiet tracks included “Fire in the Cockpit” which looks at the Apollo 1 disaster which killed all 3 astronauts on the launch pad. When you know the story its a very somber track. So these guys talked all the way through the gig and also for some reason needed to crinkle their plastic cup every few minutes. I couldn’t filter it out. None of it. I absorbed all the sound from that gig and unfortunately now I can’t listen to that album. It’s a trigger for me.

I know neurotypicals (non-autistic people) also have similar issues. People talking in a cinema will make anyone Hulk out and smash. But this. It’s worse. I notice everything at a gig and I can’t just concentrate on the music. I’m watching the settings on the camera phone app as someone tries to photograph the band. I’m wondering how someone can’t see their LED light is on on their phone while they film it. I’m listening to 3 different conversations and hearing none of them. I’m being attacked by the strobe lights. Some people aren’t dancing in time to the music and my internal clock is thrown off by that. Arg! Why can’t we all just sit still while they play the music? I’m so anxious and it stays with me for days if not weeks after. I’m at that gig living it in my head for a very long time. When we plan to go to another gig all that anxiety comes flooding back. I agree to go but I know it’s going to make me anxious for weeks. I’ll be on edge during the gig and close to overload. It’s exhausting. It’s like running a marathon just to enjoy something. If I make it through then I’m overjoyed. I did it! I enjoyed myself. Phew. Not sure I can do that again though.

Last summer I felt like I had a small break through. We went to Bluedot Festival about a week after getting my ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) diagnosis. Ardberg whisky were there giving out free samples. Score! They quickly became one of my favourite whiskeys. The weather for 90% of the weekend was glorious. We sat with friends, enjoyed food, beer and melted cookie and ice cream. Oh and the Chemical Brothers were playing. I’ve never seen them live and I was really looking forward to it. We stood at the edge of the crowd where its safe. People were talking. In my head I was telling myself “NO! Not this band. Not this time! You’re not taking them from me!” So we moved and found a new spot. People were smoking and talking. “Oh FFS! Just give me this one band!” We moved again. Closer to the middle. Closer to the chaos. Totally enveloped by the crowd. No way out. Thing is. In the crowd people aren’t casually filming or chatting to their mates about how they do the washing up. They just dance to the beat. In time too. For once I actually managed to disconnect and enjoy the music. It also helped that they had an insane set of visuals including robots. I was taken back to playing Wipeout on the PlayStation and to my early days of discovering electronic music. They were one of those bands who presented the idea to me of what really is music. Listen to ‘Music: Response’. It’s wild. So there we were in the thick of it just jumping to the beat. Maybe it was because I’d just been told I was autistic and that it explained so much of my life. Maybe it was because I didn’t give in and let someone ruin a gig for me. I fought back and found my space in the crowd and really connected with the beat.

I love music and seeing bands live. I’m writing this listening to the Mr Robot soundtrack. Read into that what you will. I cannot live without music. Maybe due to autism? A way of blocking out the world? I can’t say for sure but maybe food for thought. I do love live music though. I proposed to my wife after seeing Elbow live at Jodrell Bank because I had such a great time and couldn’t go one more minute without asking her to marry me so we could keep having times like that. I really want to keep having experiences like that. I want to avoid the anxiety for weeks up to the event. I want to switch off and lose myself in the music, the atmosphere, and the visuals. Do I wish I wasn’t autistic and could just dance the night away? I… I don’t think I do. I would lose too much of myself. I shouldn’t have to endure a gig like with Public Service Broadcasting and I shouldn’t have to spend 10 minutes fighting through a crowd to find a good space. Should I? It was so much easier when I was at the front photographing a band.

I discussed the issue with an autism professional at the NHS and they suggested that maybe it was control. I took control at Chemical Brothers but I lost control at Public Service Broadcasting. She may have been right. Maybe if I control the audio with ear plugs, the visual with sunglasses and who I stand next to I can enjoy a gig? Maybe. I just want to enjoy gigs with my wife and it’s so much hard work to do so.

By Pete

Photographer and part time Spider-man.