Table for None: An SPDer's Guide to Restaurant Seating and Other Tales

Through the awesome SPD Life site (my friend Dan's, HI!), I recently came in contact with a new SPD adult, dealing with diagnosis at age 31. As part of the fun of knowing Dan, I've been listed as a contact in the New York City region for SPD adults, as well as parents with SPD kids. This role calls out to the future therapist in me, and I am always eager and anxious to meet and compare notes with others suffering from similar sensory stuff.

Before even delving into any details, I ask my favorite question: It's a dear friend's birthday, and they've chosen a restaurant you've never been to. Do you go, and if so, where do you choose to sit?

It seems silly and simple, and I only imagine restaurant seating means very little to people with typically-functioning sensory systems. Some might want to be seen, and so they sit at the front of the restaurant, in the middle of the floor. Not us SPDers. Without fail, the answer to this question is almost always this:
"Do I really have to go? I'd probably not want to go. If I really have to go, I want to be with my back to a wall in a corner, possibly as close to the door as allows. Can I leave early?" Discussion usually follows about avoiding peak busy times, where the kitchen and/or bar is, whether the floors echo, and how mobbed the place becomes.

Yes, you can spot an individual with SPD a mile away.

For an SPDer with auditory, visual, and proprioceptive sensitivities, a restaurant can be a battlefield. Yes, deep in our hearts we want to be there, listening to stories, sharing our own, laughing. But how easily can that be done when every table in ear-shot is doing the same thing? Waiters drop by unannounced, silverware clatters to the floor, and the music is perpetually on loop. Tune out the auditory, and you're still presented with the visual: is the place distractingly decorated? Do people keep flowing through the space? And how about the table at hand, is it bustling? Are people moving and laughing and attempting to sustain eye-contact? Add on proprioceptive issues, if you're the unlucky SPDer unable to grab a table with a solid wall behind you. Do you feel connected to the space at all?

I like to think of sensory reactions like onions. It takes layers of us focusing and planning and unraveling to reach the core, basic event. On top of a simple conversation at our table, there is the layer of conversations at every table that we just can't tune out entirely. We squint and focus intently to be able to hear you. On top of that, add the layer of visual movement. And beyond this, the last layer (on this particular onion, at least) is whether or not we even feel connected in body to the space we occupy. A dinner/lunch/brunch/coffee out just became an entire sensory workout.

And this remains one of the sticking points I've had since September. No one will ever get just how much work it truly is to play normal.

Yes, it's doable. People are often surprised when they learn I've got this condition. "But you're so normal! You take on so much!" they say, and yes, to some extent, I've learned to perpetually push myself as much as I can. Every single day I live is lead like this, with a drive to appear "typical" and conquer the world around me. But it takes an entire crew of one to pull off the day-to-day. There is the prep-work, the digging: where are we going? What should I expect? Can I see photos of that restaurant/gallery/museum/street corner (thanks Google Maps!) Have I been there? Have I brushed? Do I have my tools? Do the individuals involved know what's up with me, at least in basic terms? Are there options: easier ways to get there and home, more comfortable - yet still related - possibilities? Can I have some say in what we're doing? And then: tuning out the noise and movement and negative sensory stimuli around me to actually participate in the event.

So let me say, to myself and to the handful of SPD adults I've had the true honor of encountering in the past nine months: WAY TO GO. Purely by negotiating through the haze and buzz of the world, you have achieved more than most, and more than most will ever understand. For who in the majority would put up with such strenuous tasks if they weren't pleasurable? Who else would take patience, Buddhist-like, into their palms when ignorance is at hand? Just you, my friends. Just you.


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