One of the characteristics of autism is a hyper- or hyposensitivity to specific sensory experiences. In my situation, my biggest sensory challenge is hypersensitivity to sounds. I cannot leave my flat without my music player, which I wear over my neck like a charm. It is the key object that keeps me sane and my temper in control when I am out amongst people.
Given I have always live in densely populated cities and expose to city noise, it is a wonder how I survive till now. Did they not bother me in the past? Why does it trouble me so much now? Have I developed an acute sense of hearing as I grow older?
I have come to the conclusion that no, I haven’t become a changed person overnight or gone mad all of a sudden. Some autistic traits can become more conspicuous at times of stress and change; and breakdown sometimes occur because of an accumulation of stress over a long period. Imagine switching on a dehumidifier in a humid environment, I am constantly pouring away the water, but the tank fills up again all too quickly.
In the course of finding the answers to my question, I referred to my diagnosis report in 2010 where I described myself to have a low tolerance to noise. That was 6,7 years ago. If there is a tolerance measurement for noise, I wouldn’t be surprised to reach the capacity limit by now. I recognise that noise has always been a problem throughout my life but it is as though I didn’t realise how much it really affects me until too late.
(1) At school, during my childhood and teenage years, I think to myself the following at the start of each school term, “when will my classmates ever learn to remain silence in between lessons?”; “why do they always have to be reminded to keep quiet?” Then, to answer my own question, I think to myself, “Maybe next year, when they are older and more mature, they will learn to be quiet.” This was despite me knowing that we were all of the same age. But of course, after 10 years of inaccurate predictions, it never happened. My classmates at 16 years old were just as talkative and noisy as my classmates at 7 years old. As I grow older, I learn that keeping quiet has little to do with age and that the natural instinct of most people is to talk at every opportunity. When I attend a seminar or conference, I always muse at how the atmosphere (noise level) abruptly changes after the end of a session and at the announcement of a break, as people start getting up, talking and engage themselves in social conversations to the point they had to be reminded or hushed to return to the event venue and then a minute or so waiting for the noise to deaden. Often, in these occasions, I feel I’m acting like a participant whose only purpose attending the event was so I could partake in the refreshments as I quietly sat or stood at a corner and ate while the others ate and chat.
(2) I cannot talk on the phone when I am outdoor or if the background is noisy. Many times, the flow of the conversation is interrupted by my incessant “huh, what did you say?”; “I’m sorry but I can’t hear you”; “Sorry, I still can’t hear you”; “I beg your pardon, could you please repeat that?”. I had to wonder if there is something wrong with my hearing, considering I have always considered my hearing good (good in the sense of hearing sounds which doesn’t bother other people). From my reading, I suspect that the reason I’m having trouble speaking on the phone when I’m outdoors or in a noisy background is because my ears absorb every sound I hear and that I have trouble focusing on the relevant sound (ie. the voice of the caller) because I can’t pick up what is or is not relevant. On one recent occasion, I was on the phone at a mall and despite it was relatively quiet at that time (no screaming or shouting), I still have considerable trouble hearing the other side even though their background was quiet too.
(3) I have trouble studying in a library in part because I get distracted by movements of people walking past, the sounds of footsteps, coughing, typing, phones vibrating, plastic wrappers, drinking or eating (in discreet), and talking. Yes, the library turns out to be one of the noisiest place to be in. It doesn’t matter that the people talking are actually whispering, the sounds they made are equally annoying. Whisperings are no less distracting or noisy than talking, especially the repeatedly and distinctive “s” sounds people make when they whisper, quite so often I find they might as well be talking at normal volume because they appear equally loud and irritating to me. It is for the same reason I often skip my lectures.
I do however recall fondly of the Senate House Library in London and spending hours in the grand historic building researching for my undergraduate essays. It is old but the atmosphere feels so much alive than any of the modern state-of-the-art libraries. My favourite spot is one of those individual seats situated at a quiet corner at the end of shelves. I wonder how much has changed.
(4) Living in high-rise and high density housing, household noise from adjoining units is inevitable. What has been really driving me nuts these years is the noise I hear coming from the residents living above me, specifically their and their golden retriever’s footsteps and when they vacuum, which usually falls on a Sunday. When the problem first occurred about 2-3 years ago, I had people telling me I will get use/desensitise to it gradually. That didn’t happen. I had tried white noise machines, sleep-phones, ear plugs (which are really discomforting), switching on electrical appliances that made noise to block out the sounds of the footsteps but none of which works for I could still feel the impact of the vibration of the footsteps. Nonetheless, I had a pretty good Easter holidays this year because I could tell from the lack of movement upstairs that the residents were out.
There were also a few occasions where I was with my parents and I heard noise that I thought really stood out distinctly but which they didn’t hear. However, that might just be due to their age and not hearing as good as before.
Silence is gold and something which I do not take for granted. I would say the level of noise in my environment is a good indicator of my current mood. Sometimes I wonder if life would have been better if I was as deaf as a post; if I were to lose my ears, then I wouldn’t have to hear no more.
Featured image credit: The Scream, 1893 by Edvard Munch www.EdvardMunch.org
Senate House Library image: https://www.facebook.com/SenateHouseLibrary/photos/pb.30807819864.-2207520000.1459516897./299275604864/?type=3&theater