The Sound that Surrounds Us

As an autistic person, one of the hardest things to endure and the most common factor on reaching overload for me personally is noise.

I find it impossible to sleep if it’s noisy. Sleeping in summer, when my bedroom window has to be open to catch any breath of cool air, is sketchy at best. Once upon a time I lived in a relatively rural area. I took the relative quiet for granted. The only night time noises I recall – except for the very occasional noisy neighbor – were howls from coyotes, but I never heard them in the house. For the past fifteen years or so I’ve been living in cities, in apartments. Not by choice. I can get used to the sound of traffic within reason. The steady swishing of cars down the street becomes similar to waves of the ocean, though not as soothing. While I can feel my brain expanding -relaxing? – in a delicious, calming way at the ocean, traffic noise causes a tightening, more shutdown – defensive? – sensation.

Then there are people themselves. The noise of people is excruciating. Today there is a child squealing in the neighboring building. It’s not that loud really, and not necessarily an unhappy sound, but every time it squeals it feels like my bones are going to leap out of my skin. I could close my window and turn my air conditioner on, but my energy bill is horrendous and it’s quite a lovely day. I’m trying to cut costs. Should I have to close my window because someone’s child is squealing? It’s been going on – intermittently – for hours.

noise warning

I have a soundproof headset but I find it even more uncomfortable than ear plugs. It gives me a severe headache within minutes, even at its loosest fit. I probably need to get something expensive. Something that has soothing masking noise would be nice . . . light rain or ocean waves. Having music or a video on would help drown out noise, but it distracts me too badly from whatever else I’m trying to do. I cannot write or read with music or TV on.

The funny thing is, I have a very noisy job. As a music educator I deal with not just large classes of children but all their instruments too. I enjoy an interactive classroom, and I assure you the instrumental sounds we make are not always pleasant or even cohesive music, especially this early in the year! Children need to be able to practice freely, and I give them that opportunity, especially at the beginning of class. Not all of them are allowed to practice at home. Some also live in apartments and are actually considerate of their neighbors (as I am) or are not allowed to for other reasons. It upsets grandparents. It disturbs babies. Or the parent doesn’t like the noise. Or the student just doesn’t bother. For whatever reason, many of my students do not practice at home, so I encourage them to play freely at the beginning of class. It’s something I can handle for a limited time and for logical reasons. And the music that we eventually make, and the joy the students have in making it, is SO worthwhile. My students come to understand that, while I don’t require them to be silent at the beginning and ending of class, they must be relatively quiet during class, and speak one at a time, but that’s a different issue.

HOWEVER . . . having to endure other people’s noise at home is completely different. Being woken up several times during the night by cars playing thumping loud music, people talking loudly as if at a football game, and even the homeless people going through the dumpster – it takes a toll. One of my neighbors has an extremely loud voice. Everything seems to be yelled and his laugh is like an explosion. HAHAHAHA! He stays up very late and my bedroom is next to his living room. His TV is loud too. I’ve asked for them to be quieter at night but he actually got aggressive. I just avoid them and try to live with it.

I wear ear plugs to sleep even though they are very uncomfortable for me and accentuate the noise in my head. I don’t feel rested after sleeping in ear plugs, but it beats not sleeping at all. I wear them to concerts too, at least until my ears adapt to the noise, but I don’t go to concerts often for that very reason. I don’t deal well with crowds of people either, but that’s a different issue as well. Perhaps I should have been an astronaut. I hear space is very quiet.

astronaut in space

Except for the whole fear of heights and claustrophobia thing.

Anyway, I thought I’d write something about what it’s like – being so sensitive to noise – as I sit here wearing ear plugs in the middle of the day because a neighbor’s child is squealing. It’s been all day now. I had three children and none of them screamed or squealed or yelled. Not in the house for no reason.

Why is this necessary and how do neurotypical people endure it? Most people just don’t seem to notice these things. Do you have issues with noise? If so, what have you found that helps? Have you had experience explaining it to other people?

B B Shepherd is a musician, educator, and author and can also be found at Glistering: B’s Blog

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7 thoughts on “The Sound that Surrounds Us

  1. Yes. What helps: for mild situations (our local super market, traffic noise), ear plugs – just common cheap, skin-coloured foam ear plugs. For situations when I need to be able to converse yet expect background noise to be a problem, I use 1/2 or 2/3 ear plugs, so I just cut them to a smaller size with scissors to make sure I can easily have conversations yet still cut out excess and painful noise. For slightly worse situations (e.g. Aldi, Malls, train stations – situations with a lot of both auditory and visual noise), I use full ear plugs + in some cases headphones with music on top, and sunglasses. But generally, I prefer to avoid such places especially if they’re unnecessary, such as malls (since most types of products sold in malls can be purchased in other shops too) or Aldi (because there are other supermarkets too). For overwhelmingly noisy situations that also are very socially challenging (such as dinners and parties) , I generally prefer to simply not go there and luckily, I usually don’t have to go.

    Experience explaining it to people: yes a lot, nowadays pretty much everyone who knows me, knows about my noise problem I think. I explain it as a problem with reduced ability to filter out background noise – being flooded by the ambient noise, and that certain sounds are painful – that is actually a very accurate description. When they grasp that concept, then I add that visual noise is a problem too – that I have a similar filter problem visually. People tend to forget it or underestimate how much it affects me, but usually seem to easily grasp the principle of deficient ability to filter and prioritise sounds/inputs.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I resist wearing earplugs during the day as I usually have to wear them to sleep. My neighbor has a very loud voice and I can hear their TV through the wall. My ear canals are small and even the softest ear plugs are very uncomfortable. I also experience a ton of tinnitus, and wearing them increases it. They may block out external noise, but the noise in my head becomes overwhelming too. Sometimes it’s hard to win!

      Liked by 1 person

      • That is interesting. I have tinnitus too, and also suspect it is connected with my frequent use of ear plugs. I’m not sure if ear plugs worsen tinnitus while I wear them, or if it just becomes more noticeable when the ear plugs remove other background noise that would otherwise drown it (I mostly get tinnitus when it gets quiet & I’m tired- trying to relax or sleep after a noisy & tiring day, although it is also sometimes constant & comes on top of other background noise). Luckily, tinnitus doesn’t in itself usually prevent me from sleeping, but it can be quite depressing to have a constant “tone” in the ears. (“tone” is inaccurate, but I can’t come up with a better word right now)

        If the ear plugs cause tinnitus, then I’ll still wear them anyway. My tinnitus is relatively mild, and the pain and overload in/after exposure to noisy/busy surroundings is a much bigger problem.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve had the tinnitus as long as I can remember but had never thought too much about it until my oldest daughter mentioned hers. It’s interesting to know that you have it too. I wonder if it’s common to autistic people? Mine’s definitely not caused by the earplugs, but using them does make it more noticeable. I also notice it much more (very loud!) after consuming too much caffeine (tea or dark chocolate) or salt. And yes, much worse after exposure to extensive noise. Concerts, movies, etc. enjoyable but too loud!

        Liked by 1 person

      • I have developed it late in life, which is why I suspect it may be an accumulated effect of wearing ear plugs a lot. I had a boss in 1997 who had it – in his case it was caused by seasonal tractor driving (by constant, loud engine noise through many hours every day). As far as I know, it is a relatively common “professional injury” in noisy vocations like rock musician, violinist. I imagine it may also be common for people who work in workplaces with constant machinery noise (like in the machineryroom on container ships). I have no idea if it is particularly common for autistic people. Maybe it is hereditary, that would help explain why both you and your daugter have it.


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