The second most sensitive sense for me is sound.
For a time there in my early thirties I thought I was going deaf. I had always had hearing and ENT problems as a child (or maybe I was just autistic?) and so thought this was a continuation of some sort. I saw a consultant who, after tests, told me that my hearing was perfect. So, why could I not hear what was being said if there was any kind of background noise, I asked. He told me it was because I was born prematurely and my inner ear hadn’t developed fully and so it or my brain coudn’t process or distinguish sounds when there was a lot of auditory input. Hearing aids wouldn’t help and the only solution was to learn to lip-read. At that time I had two young children, worked full-time and so had no spare time to take lip-reading classes. Besides, I kind of already did lip-read, and still do. If I can’t see your mouth when you’re talking, I can’t hear you. I can’t process your words.
Roll forward to self-identification and my rabbit-hole autism research and I read about something called auditory processing disorder (there are similar processing disorders for the other senses, too). Aha!
When there are multiple auditory sources, I cannot process them. I cannot pick out the one relevant source – your speaking voice – and cancel out all the others – background music, the television, other people in the pub, traffic noise, the fan on my computer… you get the idea.
My hearing is actually very sensitive. When we first moved into this house, at night I could hear the pump of the underground reservoir some distance to the back of our house. At least that’s what I think the noise is. It drove me nuts. Last night I could hear it through my mattress – until I put my ear plugs in.
I cannot process information if you simply tell me. I need to see it in writing – whether pre-printed or written down myself as you talk. Alternatively I need to see something done and actively do it myself to either take it in or to learn something new. I cannot easily process the spoken word. I struggle with tv programmes if the speech isn’t clear and have to rewind and watch key bits of dialogue to follow the plot. I can’t tell you if I like a movie unless I’ve seen it a couple of times to let me process it fully.
If you want to tell me something important, you need to be absolutely certain you actually have my attention otherwise it might not go in. I will not hear anything you say if I am focusing on something else – hyper focusing. It’s what many autistics do. If I’m reading, all of my attention is on what I’m reading and no auditory input is going through. I’m not being ignorant. I can’t hear you.
I hate using the telephone. I can’t process the words fast enough to answer in a way that I can be certain is the right response. I have to ask people to repeat themselves. I have to write it down as I listen to be able to take it in. I much prefer email or text.
This doesn’t necessarily mean I don’t like any sound. I love sound. I love loud music – but only my music – I cannot abide Jazz. Remember that fingers-down-a-chalkboard feeling I talked about in the last post? That’s me and Jazz. I cannot bear it. For a while I kept asking why do I love Blues so much but hate Jazz. What is it musically that makes that happen. Now I can let go of that and assume it’s part of my processing issues.
I will use music as a barrier to all other sounds if I want to concentrate on reading or writing. Sometimes with lyrics (the words just wash over me anyway) sometimes without.
For some autistic people sound is excruciating. I saw a man in a T.V. programme who reported that he can hear electricity humming through the wires in the walls. Some people wear noise cancelling headphones to simply negotiate the everyday world without being overwhelmed. For me, when I reach overload, I get a kind of nausea deep inside and I have to retreat to silence.
So, again, a request. If you know someone who seems to zone out and not hear you, they might not be being rude. If someone wears headphones, they might not be being anti-social. If a child is covering their ears in distress they might be overloaded.
Give us space. Look at what you could do to help. Want to meet up for a chat? Suggest somewhere quiet without canned music and bouncing hard surfaces everywhere. And don’t make a big show of it.
We’ll love you for it.