A 48-year-old man on the autism spectrum was left feeling humiliated and alienated after a train conductor reprimanded him for refusing to wear a mask on board the train and ordered him to face a wall so that he wouldn’t be breathing on other passengers.
Neil Templeton has always had trouble with social situations. He was labeled “maladjusted” in school, has been fired from 25 jobs, and struggles to make and keep friends. But it wasn’t until he was 36 years old that he went to a psychiatrist and was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and finally got some answers to the questions he’s had his entire life. The diagnosis was both painful and relieving.
“A lot of people think I’m lazy because of the long periods of unemployment—but it’s not the work, it’s getting on with other people,” Neil says. “The longest I’ve worked is five months. I lived in Sweden for seven years doing care work, I’ve really tried. I’ve coped with things by not mixing with people as much as I can. I’ve been bullied at work quite a lot.”
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Neil’s symptoms and struggles have only been exacerbated. He deals with anxiety and insomnia related to his autism spectrum disorder, he’s very sensitive to loud noises, and parts of his face are too sensitive to enable him to wear glasses or a face mask. He also suffers from asthma, which only contributes to the uncomfortable feeling of being “weak like jelly” and unable to breathe properly when he tries to wear a mask.
Neil had just boarded the Avanti West Coast train from London to Manchester Piccadilly when he was reprimanded by a conductor in front of other passengers for not wearing a mask and told to face the wall. Neil did as he was told but says the incident left him feeling embarrassed and depressed.
“I was clearly bullied and publicly humiliated by this man who took immediate exception to me not wearing a mask, even though I was peacefully looking out of the window and reading a newspaper,” says Neil. “I have misunderstandings all the time, I’m not very good at reading if someone is genuine or not. I get into trouble quite a lot. I thought on the train I was doing the right thing by having the ribbon with sunflowers on it. It’s hard enough what’s going on, but that guy made me feel like a prisoner—and he was enjoying it.”
Neil was wearing a sunflower lanyard around his neck that is meant to alert people about his hidden disabilities when the incident occurred. Avanti West Coast provides the lanyards in partnership with Hidden Disabilities Sunflower Scheme and trains their staff to know what they mean, but the lanyard didn’t keep Neil from being treated like a criminal by Avanti’s staff that day. The train company is now investigating Neil’s complaint.
“I’ve complained to Avanti,” he says. “I felt thoroughly depressed because of that man. People are already feeling funny because of what’s going on. We don’t need people like him. On the train to London, there was the same rule but people were easy going about it. People just need to be more human.”
Neil has put up with harassment, bullying, and misunderstandings many times before now. He hopes that his story will raise awareness for autism spectrum disorders and hidden disabilities so that others will not have to go through awful incidents like this one.
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?