I hesitated to write this post because an entire blog post about autistic noise sensitivity seemed excessive. I mean sensory issues are only one part of autism as a whole (and not even a part considered essential for diagnosis) and sound sensitivity is an even smaller part of those sensory problems.
But, for me in general and especially right now, it’s a big part of my autism (I’m making a concerted effort not to write ‘possible autism’ anymore – I am
fairly certain I am autistic). It’s the one autistic trait I have that causes me very obvious and daily struggles (except possibly social anxiety/issues with using the phone…and problems with executive functioning…and – you know what? It’s one of several autistic traits that cause me very obvious, daily struggles).
I think the cliche when it comes to noise sensitivity and autism is someone covering their ears with their hands (or perhaps wearing ear defenders) whenever there’s any noise or at least loud noise.
(At this point Tyger refused to let me take a photo of him wearing his ear defenders so I asked him to take a photo of me wearing them and the result was…)
Unsurprisingly, that’s a simplistic view of how it works and affects people on the spectrum (if I had a pound for every time I use the phrase ‘it’s not as simple as that’ in my blog posts I’d probably have…like…a tenner by now).
With any of the senses someone one the spectrum can be hypersensitive – meaning they’re more sensitive than usual. For noise, specifically, that might mean sounds seem louder or background noise isn’t filtered out or noises get sort of muddled up. But, they can also be hyposensitive. That’s where someone’s less sensitive than is the norm. In that case sounds might go unnoticed and loud noises actually sought out.
To make things even more complicated (or, I could say: ‘it’s not as simple as that’): the same person might display both hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity depending on the situation/time/kind of noise.
Take Tyger, for example. He’s incredibly hypersensitive to sounds. The speech and language therapist we saw when Tyger was being assessed for autism noted how he reacted to every sound from outside the room. A slight muffled thump from upstairs, a baby crying in the waiting room outside: all those noises that most people filter out got a reaction from Tyger because he can’t filter them out. He loves watching fireworks but even with his ear defenders on he gets very anxious about the bangs.
However, he’s also hyposensitive to sounds, too. He can completely blank out certain noises and insists on making his own noise constantly. I know all kids are noisy but this is something different entirely. Sometimes Tyger makes a lot of noise to drown out another sound, which is still him being sensitive to noise (a predictable sound he controls is preferable to a seemingly random one out of his control) but often there is no other noise and he’s doing it as a sort of stimming (self stimulating behaviour). He might hum tunelessly, make ‘brrr’ noises for long periods of time, scream, repeat a word or phrase to himself over and over and over again, quote from a film he likes, make strange sounds, put on fake laughs, kicks things constantly, bangs on anything within reach and when he talks to you it’s at a much higher volume than is appropriate or ‘normal’.
Bear is similarly a mix of hyper and hypo-sensitive to noise but leaning more towards hypo than Tyger. For instance, the fireworks that so bothered Tyger? Bear didn’t even look to see where the bangs were coming from. He’s the same with low flying planes and helicopters: he just doesn’t register the noise.
I – as you may have gathered – am extremely hypersensitive to noise.
I find it incredibly difficult to filter out background noise, especially if I’m trying to focus on a conversation. So, if I’m having a couple of glasses of wine and a chat of an evening I need to have any music on a much lower volume than other people. Otherwise, it seems to get louder and louder until I can’t concentrate on what someone is saying to me. Whilst I love to hear about Freddie Mercury going slightly mad, I don’t need to hear about it at the expense of hearing what my dad has to say about the quantifiable aspects of health and safety in the work place…or maybe I do. Anyway, the only way I can describe it is it’s like a physical presence for me. Like an actual pressure in my head.
That physical nature of sounds happens with certain loud noises, too. It literally feels like something stabbing into my head. Lot’s of sounds altogether can make me feel like I’m being pushed, or like the room is shrinking. Kind of like I’m in the trash compacter in Star Wars but without…you know, the hair.
Sometimes I feel so trapped I stop being able to communicate and go very quiet and withdrawn. Other times it makes me snappy and irritable.
Again, it isn’t as simple as ‘I don’t like loud noises’. In fact, I found the other day when I was feeling particularly overloaded with noise that the best way to calm myself down was to leave the cubs with Wolf and shut myself in the kitchen with loud music on.
When I was a teenager I often used to hide in my bedroom with the main light off and loads of lamps on and candles burning and my favourite album of the moment playing on repeat as loud as I thought I could get away with. I guess I used to make myself my own sensory room without realising that’s what I was doing.
That same physical presence that can be oppressive and scary in some situations is comforting and calming in others. I suppose it’s much the same as how being grabbed by a stranger would be terrifying but being hugged tight by someone you trust can be restorative and soothing.
On top of sounds feeling suffocating and even almost painful, there’s another problem. If I’m around a lot of noise for a prolonged period of time it’s very tiring. Sometimes it’s exhausting to the point where I feel I need a nap, although as the parent of two children who have less than sociable sleep patterns I’m used to that and power through with lots and lots and lots of tea.
Combine the thunderous children with the noise sensitivity and…I think you can see where I’m going with this. It’s not a great mix. There are days when the din gets to me to the point where I feel like crying
or do but at least I know why now.
I’m trying to get better at dealing with the noise. I’m trying to use music to calm myself down. Unfortunately the cubs aren’t old enough for me to just put headphones in and ignore them and they are NOT at all happy if I put loud music on without headphones but I can listen to music once they’re in bed or if Wolf is around. I do try to remove myself from the situation if the sound is getting to me but I think any parent of young children can empathise when I say they often follow.
I’m sure one day scientists will invent hearing aid-ear defender combinations that block out a two year old screaming because he really wanted to draw on the wall with pink highlighter and some unreasonable person stopped him, but amplify a two year old screaming because he’s in mortal danger
because his brother fed him ibuprofen tablets again. That’s what I need.