Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Inside A Torture Chamber

Ben Forshaw is a husband and software developer rapidly approaching 40 years of age from the U.K. who, despite holding down a job, relies heavily on his wife to keep his life in some kind of order. He has Aspergers Syndrome and blogs about his experiences at "Married, with Aspergers".

I spent for too long at the hospital yesterday accompanying my wife as she went through a series of tests and scans. The X-Ray/Ultrasound department has recently moved to a refurbished suite and it's all new and shiny.

Too shiny. The lighting makes its white walls harshly bright. It's all straight lines and square corners with no relieving softness. I know hospitals are clinical - obviously - but do they really have to look so cold and unfriendly? I was feeling on edge when we got to the department reception desk. Luckily my wife dealt with the receptionist - with the bright lights, echoing footsteps and other voices all claiming my attention I couldn't concentrate on what he was saying at all. We got directed to a small waiting area off one of the corridors - an alcove with a row of six chairs on each side, facing each other. About half the chairs were occupied; I took one at the end away from the corridor with my wife sitting next to me.

I feel uncomfortable in waiting rooms at the best of times; I get very anxious when people are sat looking at me. And I don't like to feel I'm being overheard when I talk to somebody, so I was inhibited from speaking with my wife. I ended up just sitting there, stimming in a fairly subtle manner by tapping one thumb on the other with my hands together, fingers intertwined - trying to keep reasonably calm. However the pressure of having other people facing me in such a small space was making me increasingly anxious. (I have similar problems using public transport - that's why I will walk miles rather than catch a bus.)

So there I am in this small waiting area with too many strangers looking at me, the harsh light making me feel even more exposed and uncomfortable. I can feel I'm getting close to a sensory overload. And then somebody goes through the door in the corridor just outside this alcove. How to describe the noise made by that door? If you've seen those old horror films where the castle door slowly closes to the accompaniment of a tortured squeal from its stiff, rusted hinges you'll know exactly what this door sounded like. That did overload me. I had to shut my eyes every time that door opened or closed because it was as if somebody was shining a spotlight into them. It hurt. I was starting to ache from the tension across my shoulders and up my neck.

I thought to myself that they couldn't have designed a more effective environment to torture somebody with sensory processing issues if they had tried. I just felt like curling up in a corner and shutting down but I had to keep myself going to keep my wife company. By the time we got out of there I was tense and exhausted and just wanted to rest. It took a massive effort to avoid shutting down and left me drained. I'm not sure how much support I gave to my wife but at least I was there and mostly responsive. I find it hard to believe that a hospital could get its design so wrong in terms of providing spaces for people that are comfortable and promote a calm state of mind.


  1. Great post. I don't think the architect thought of designign a sensory-friendly suite. However, designing for sensory comfort would provide benefits to everyone, with or without sensory processing issues.

    1. Thank you Astrid. I agree with what you say -- if sensory issues were considered during planning along with statutory requirements such as disabled access then it probably wouldn't even cost any more, and as you say it benefits everyone.