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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Sorry, I Can’t See What You’re Saying…

a picture is worth a thousand words

I have begun to understand that unless I have time to “picture” what a person is saying, I often don’t “hear” them. It’s definitely gotten trickier since I have some hearing damage from amplifiers, but I now realize it’s always been this way. It might be one reason it was hard to maintain or even gain friends in school. Sometimes I might not have grasped what they were saying and probably didn’t respond in the right way, or at all. I can see how that would appear rude, weird, or offensive. I suppose it can make a person appear stupid too, in spite of the complex thought processes that might be simultaneously going through that person’s mind.

Speech doesn’t need to be slow, necessarily, but when I listen to something verbal, I have to be able to picture what’s being said. Visuals and modeling in class settings can be very helpful, even for adults. I was talking to a friend today who was talking so fast, I couldn’t keep up a lot of the time. I heard names that I knew and could picture the people, but not what was being related about them. It was very frustrating. It has only recently occurred to me that this is an aspect of my autism and that not everyone has to picture things to process language. I don’t always have trouble, but often in new or stressful situations with new information, I have to work much harder to comprehend what is being said.

In a work setting, I get a little frustrated when times, places, figures, numbers, statistics, etc. are being thrown around with no visual references. They mean little to nothing to me unless I can process them visually. Same with directions on how to get somewhere. I’m a great map reader, but don’t just rattle off directions and expect me to retain them. I won’t unless I have a visual reference for the directions or places you name. At least write them down for me, then I’m fine. Meetings are horrible, especially when there are always those few people who insist on talking in the background. It often muddies or supercedes what I’m supposed to be listening to.

It’s especially hard on the phone when, without visual interaction, I also have issues of not knowing when I can talk. Poor reception can make things even more difficult. Sometimes I can’t get a word in as it doesn’t seem to be my turn. If I try to say something, I feel like I’m interrupting. If the person I’m talking to takes over the conversation before I’m finished, I can’t hear what they’re saying because I’m still thinking about what I was going to say. I fake it a lot too. If I completely get lost, I have to ask people to slow down or start over, but a lot of the time I just pretend to hear what they’re saying and try to make occasional responses, hoping they’re appropriate. I listen for words that stand out, and if I think I’ve missed something important, I ask them to repeat it. I try not to do that too often or they won’t want to talk to me anymore!

I enjoy watching videos more than TV as I can stop and replay sections I couldn’t catch the words of, especially as I tend to love shows with witty, playful dialogue (Gilmore Girls, Buffy, Firefly, Sherlock), but they tend to talk so fast!

It’s the same when I read. Although I love words and books, I read slowly. I have to be able to picture what I’m reading. I guess that’s why I appreciate description so much. I tend to write a lot of description, too, and that’s mostly what I’ve been editing out of my currently published novel. No one’s complained about it, but it’s very long.

I also can’t listen to more than one thing at a time. Apart from just finding it annoying, it’s completely confusing. If more than one person is talking at a time I hear nothing but vocal noise. If there are a lot of people talking, it soon becomes overwhelming. I avoid those situations. In class, my students learn they can’t talk to me at the same time. They become very considerate about it when I explain. We have our noisy times – especially at the beginning and end of class – when I just deal with it, and my autistic students learn to cope with it too. But the rest of the time I’m listening very intently. Once we start really working, it can’t be chaotically noisy. It’s something of a mixed blessing.

Please never make the mistake of thinking that someone who processes slowly is of lower intelligence. In many situations they might run circles around you – mentally speaking, at least. Other distractions and eye contact are issues for another day.

How do you process language? Do you have trouble with auditory/language processing? What is your experience?

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

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.