A little understanding and kindness would have gone a long way
My story begins with a flight into London Gatwick very early one morning from a performance in the USA. Already exhausted I was desperate to get home and was due to catch the train from London Waterloo to Weymouth.
I boarded what I thought was the correct train, but very quickly became concerned that I was on the wrong train. The only way to allay my anxiety was to find somebody who could help. A fellow passenger wasn’t sure and so I walked the length of the train to find the guard all the while feeling more and more stressed. Relieved to finally locate the guard I was even more relieved to find that it was a female guard - I usually find it easier to relate and communicate with females.
However, what transpired next completely shocked me and brought about a major anxiety attack.
The female guard was walking through the carriages checking passengers’ tickets, so I walked towards her to speak to her; I explained that I was worried I was on the wrong train. She was immediately hostile, rude, and intimidating.
I showed her my ticket and tried to explain the situation, by now I was experiencing high levels of anxiety and felt under immense stress, the guard told me that I was on the wrong train, and I had to pay £62.00. She was dismissive and unhelpful from the outset and her ‘matter of fact’ and almost aggressive response immediately triggered my autism. I started to feel extremely worried and scared, she insisted I had to pay the fee even though I calmly explained to her that I needed some time to process what was going on.
I had an ‘Autism Alert Card’, which has explanatory notes regarding the condition and contact telephone numbers for assistance. I showed this to her because I could feel myself starting to go into a meltdown and I also verbally explained to her that I was autistic - (I have only had 3 meltdowns in 4 years as I have learned how to manage how to avoid having one).
The guard completely ignored my Autism Alert Card - she didn’t even look at it despite me holding it out for her to see, she was not interested whatsoever.
Instead, she kept reiterating that I had to pay an additional fee of £62.00, her tone of voice was aggressive and quite clearly, she had no interest in helping or assisting in this situation.
I became so stressed by her lack of cooperation or understanding that I, unfortunately, lost the ability to comprehend what was happening and my brain went totally blank – that’s when my “meltdown” began.
I was unable to understand what was going on and my ability to process any information was now virtually impossible. The guard was not interested in helping me or understanding my predicament she was only interested in quoting the amount of money that she believed I had to pay.
By this point, I was so traumatized, and confused by the events which had unfolded, the negative attitude of the guard and her demeanor and lack of assistance meant all I could think about was getting off the train.
The next station on the line was Woking, the guard then told me I had to pay £11.20, without questioning her I paid using cash, I was issued a ticket with a penalty fine included.
The train arrived at Woking station, I went to leave the train, the female guard followed me, and by this time I was having a complete autistic ‘meltdown’ I had to negotiate two sets of doors to be able to get off the train which I was unable to do as I couldn’t work out how to open them and was put under even more pressure by the guard standing directly behind me in an intimidating manner. I turned to the guard to seek assistance, but I was unable to speak and communicate clearly because I was so distressed, the guard just responded, ‘PUSH THE BUTTON’, in a cold and clinical fashion with no element of reassurance, or compassion.
She followed me off the train and demanded I go upstairs and buy another ticket. I started to ascend the stairs but stopped halfway up and could see this female guard talking to other members of train staff on the platform, I believed that she was telling her colleagues about me.
Due to the behavior of the guard, the way she treated me throughout this extremely traumatic episode, I became paranoid and believed that all the staff had been appraised as to what had happened, that they had been given a description of what I looked like and that they were going to be looking out for me and not to help me or give me support.
Unfortunately, the impact of this whole episode meant that I then hid in Woking station out of sight for an hour awaiting a train to Weymouth to arrive.
An hour later a train came along, and I jumped on it and spent the journey desperately avoiding the train guards, (I planned to stay on the train unless they call the police!) – I made it back to Weymouth without seeing a train guard.
Learn, Understand, Accept
All I wanted was a little understanding and kindness, not just for people with autism but for everybody. If this guard had taken just two minutes to listen to me, to understand my situation and my building anxiety she could have very easily turned a very anxious time into a calm and safe environment.
Looking back at it today, I am absolutely disgusted and furious and still find it inconceivable that an organisation like South Western trains would employ staff who would treat any customer in this way.
Today, with the emphasis on treating people equally particularly those with disabilities I find this experience extremely disappointing. We have come a long way but we obviously have a lot further to go. Nobody should be treated with this level of contempt and be dismissed and not given the help, support, and respect they need.
All it would take is for South Western trains to provide enhanced and relevant training to all staff to help people who suffer from this life-long condition and then my story would be very different.
I experienced the worst kind of customer care from this specific individual that I had the unfortunate experience of meeting.
I have never travelled on a train since!