"I'm Autistic. This Is What It's Like For Me Using London Transport"

By Lauren Malina-Goldsmith Last edited 25 months ago

Last Updated 20 May 2022

"I'm Autistic. This Is What It's Like For Me Using London Transport"
Mill Hill East, where the author uses to commute

When you look at me, you would not have a clue that I am autistic.

I am 21 and a university student. For the most part, I experience pretty much the same things as anyone else: lectures, hobbies and socialising.

Until you take a look inside my mind. I think about how I affect the world around me way more than the average person, even on things as simple as public transport. I am a Londoner, so I'm lucky I have had the chance to adapt to the city's underground and buses, but they still present challenges for me every time I use them.

The sunflower lanyard is useful but limited. Image: Hidden Disabilities Store

I do not live in walking distance of a tube station, so my journey always begins with a bus. I quietly tap my Oyster and find somewhere on the bottom deck to balance, because I am scared of falling down the stairs while the bus is in motion.

Things don't stop there: I panic about where to sit or stand in case someone else needs the space, even though technically I can use priority spaces as autism is a disability. But even if I choose to wear a sunflower lanyard to indicate my hidden disability to people:

  1. Most people are not aware of the sunflower lanyard and what it means.
  2. Should I really have to disclose that I am disabled to a stranger?
  3. Would they care once they knew?
Buses can be a cause for much stress and anxiety. Image: Shutterstock

This has not been a massive issue in London; I am able-bodied so I can attempt to balance while holding onto a pole. But one time I was not so lucky. I had my headphones on as I was stressed and had zoned out from the outside world while sat on an ordinary seat on a tram, when a woman screamed at me for not offering up my seat. I completely would have if I had noticed, but I was not given the chance. Instead, I was yelled at before and after I gave up my seat. Lucky for me, I was a stop away from my destination and I had the coping mechanisms to walk to where I needed to be safely. After that, I proceeded to have a full-scale meltdown that then wiped out my energy for the rest of the day. You may think that this is dramatised, but I have been known to fall down on buses and that's embarrassing for anyone before you take into account my diagnoses of autism and anxiety.

Normally ticket barriers are fine, but they can be problematic. Image: TfL

That is all before I have set foot in a tube station.

Normally ticket barriers are fine, however once on National Rail I got stuck in a barrier as I did not understand how group tickets work. I was not in a lot of pain but the shock stayed with me for some time.

However, National Rail staff are very helpful. Last summer, I was travelling with two friends, one of whom is also autistic and has a condition called discoid meniscus, which can make walking and balancing difficult. We wanted to sit together, but our tickets were not reserved. We could not find anywhere, and my friend was afraid of falling over. We then spoke to Paul, a member of Great Western Rail staff, who said there were plenty of seats in another carriage and he took us to there, which was lovely.

"Escalators are my biggest challenge"

Anyway, back onto my underground journey. Escalators, while helpful for keeping London moving, are my biggest challenge. As I go to get on one, I hesitate. The fear of falling down or even up one hits me. Four or five steps pass, and I finally get on, infuriating the people behind me.

This could be avoided with lifts, which are slowly being placed in many tube stations and will make stations that were completely inaccessible before available to anyone with a disability, improving transport options for everyone on the spectrum and more. I am proud that my local station — Mill Hill East — is only a month or two away from opening its lift to the public.

"I have even messed up the Jubilee line, a straight line." Image: TfL

Finally, I make it to the tube platform. I know which way to go now, but not understanding how certain lines work made my trips difficult to start with. Yes, I have even messed up the Jubilee line, a straight line. The doors open and I get on with both speed and hesitation, nervous of the gap between the train and the platform and the doors closing on me simultaneously. I try and find a seat or something to lean on. Rush hour particularly makes me nervous. Being only five feet tall, I cannot always find something to hold onto and I balance for my life. Off I go, to whatever adventure lies ahead of me.

I tend to start on an overground part of the Northern line, which is not so bad, but the moment I go underground it feels like another world. The howling sound you get from being inside a moving tube means I cannot hear a thing and occasionally even leaves me in pain. This is particularly fun when you are trying to talk to a friend next to you, as if communicating was not hard enough. Add that to the force when the tube starts and stops if you are standing and that can be quite disorientating. Sometimes it is so sharp, I have been only an inch away from falling into someone.

The author on public transport

As for the Overground? It is not something I really come into contact with and also something that I just do not really know how to use. If I needed to really use it, I would try but would probably ask somebody at a station, as TfL staff can be very helpful. With time I hope to become confident with the Overground too.

When I get to my stop, I follow the crowd to find my way out and then get to wherever I need to be. I love London, it is my home and I am proud to live in a city that in time will become accessible to everybody. London will really be open.

Lauren Malina-Goldsmith is an ambassador for the National Autistic Society.