“Autistic people hear everything at the same volume.”
Have any of you ever heard this? This statement is one I hear a lot, generally as a quick oversimplified explanation of one of the ways in which autistic people experience the world differently. I’ve long been turning this statement around in my head, dissecting it to try and determine its actual validity. Certainly this can’t be literally true, as if it was shouldn’t autistic people not be able to tell what things are loud and what things are soft? I can tell you whether something is quieter than another thing. And, how many times do you think an autistic person somewhere has said something is too loud? My guess would be a lot, and if we really did hear everything at the same volume, how would we be able to perceive anything as louder than anything else?
Then again, as I consider this in my head, I fully understand exactly what this is trying to illustrate. I’ll explain with an example going on at the very moment as I am writing this. Right now, I’m in what most would consider to be a very quiet room. But what do I hear? I hear the hard drive spinning in my laptop, I hear the air rushing out of the vent in my room, I hear the furnace across the hall, I hear the water running through the pipes in the walls, and I hear the muffled sound of the TV from upstairs. All of this is equally present. I hear it all, and don’t tune it out. It’s the sounds of silence that no one else notices. For most people, apparently there is a foreground and a background to what they’re hearing. In the foreground is the stuff they recognize as important, like a conversation or the show they’re watching. The foreground is what they perceive. Then there’s the background, full of everything else that is unimportant and they don’t consciously perceive or pay attention to. Most people seem to be able to separate out foreground from background and selectively hear the foreground, to the point that they don’t even notice the background. However, seeing as I am autistic and not like most people, I do not hear things this way. I hear everything in the foreground. Everything is equally present, right up front. The hum of a fluorescent lamp can be deafening because it’s right up there with equal presence like everything else. It certainly does give the impression of everything playing at the same volume.
So, I think a more technical thing to say would be “autistic people hear everything with equal presence.” Hearing everything at the same volume is a good way for neurotypicals to think about what it’s like to have autistic sensory processing. It really does seem like everything is playing at the same volume, hence my internal debate with the statement made at the beginning of this post. (And yes, I understand that they’re probably are autistic people who don’t have this perception, given that autism is a massive spectrum and you can’t make broad sweeping statements about all autistic people. But, nonetheless, I’ve done enough nitpicking, so we’ll just go with it.)
Differences in auditory processing are perhaps one of the most publicly recognizable autism traits. When a semi-informed member of the general public pictures an autistic person, I’d bet a good lot of them picture a kid with his hands over his ears, or someone with noise cancelling headphones on. Differences in sensory processing are present in well over 99% of the autistic population, despite the fact that it’s not listed in the DSM as an autism criteria. This has, in turn, sparked much debate about whether these sensory differences should be considered part of autism or part of a co-occurring sensory processing disorder that affects nearly every autistic person. However, no one can doubt the fact that sensory processing differences have a big affect on the lives of autistic people.
I find it interesting that people latch on so much to auditory processing that we forget that there are, technically, around 25 other senses, all of them which can be affected by autism. Perhaps it’s because we live in a society filled to the brim with noise, so much that auditory processing differences are the ones that most pervasively affect many autistic people. I’m really not sure. Either way though, people don’t tend to fully grasp entirely what auditory sensory differences (or sensory overload) means for autistic people. For one thing:
It’s not just about volume.
It might be easy to make the assumption that autistic people are simply oversensitive to any “noise” in the same way, and so therefore auditory sensitivities are just a matter of volume. Louder things are overloading, quiet things are not. But here’s the thing: this isn’t necessarily true. Did you know that many autistic people, even those with sensitivities to sound, will crave loud music? I’m one of these autistic people. I love metal music, and especially the band Metallica, and sometimes when I need to self-regulate the best solution is just to blast Master of Puppets through a pair of headphones. To the outside observer, this may seem strange given that I’ve had serious sensory overload in a Starbucks, what may seem like a quiet coffee shop. But again, it’s not just about volume. With the coffee shop there’s all kinds of different sounds from all over the place, each one with equal presence, all pounding against me in a din. With the music from the headphones, there’s one source of sound, and it’s music in a form and genre that I can understand and anticipate. Thus, the coffee shop is overwhelming, the music is not.
One must also consider the source of the sound and the environment it’s in. I can tolerate loud music through headphones, but the moment you start pumping it through a speaker I start to get overwhelmed, especially if it’s through multiple speakers. I’m not sure why this is, but I’m guessing it has something to do with the acoustics of playing music in a room. People may also assume that I, for example, may be able to better tolerate sitting in a restaurant if said restaurant has fewer people in it, because fewer people means less noise. However, I find this to not always be the case. I have trouble in plenty much any restaurant that has a high steel ceiling, as any sound is just amplified as it bounces off of the corrugated metal of the ceiling. Another important environmental consideration is that of one’s internal environment: sometimes I may be able to tolerate noise, sometimes I may not, and it depends on how I’m feeling that particular day.
There was a recent conversation going on about this over Twitter, and many came to the conclusion that the “complexity” of noise is also more of a factor than pure volume. For example, the humming of an air conditioner is not a very complex noise, as it is essentially just a monotone. People talking over each other, however is a very complex noise, as it has a lot of different inflections and information content from all the different voices that compose it. Being in an enclosed space with lots of people talking (and probably some muzak playing over the sound system on top of that) is probably the worst set of circumstances for auditory overload in myself and many other people. These sort of circumstances makes me feel like I’m drowning. I lose all sense of direction and thought as my brain slowly loses its ability to organize itself over the overwhelming din, pushing my anxiety through the roof. Left unchecked for too long, this will push me to meltdown, which is like if the brain were a filing cabinet and someone just dumped out all of its contents onto the floor.
There’s also the factor of how this noise came about. Sudden loud noises, especially sudden loud high-pitched noises, completely do me in. Popping balloons? Bad. Whistles? Really bad. Sudden applause and cheering from an audience? Really, really bad. You know how sometimes when you’re falling asleep, and your just starting to drift off, you start dreaming a bit but you trip in your dream and jolt yourself awake? That’s sort of what my reaction feels like to a sudden loud noise, except it’s 1,000 times worse and makes my anxiety way worse.
There’s also aversions to some specific sounds. This one is actually fairly common even for non-autistic people. Lots of people have an aversion to the sound of other people eating. Along with this, I have a specific strong aversion to the sound of people popping their knuckles. Do you know how often people pop their knuckles? It’s all the time. And every time I always hear it, and it literally physically hurts to listen to.
Finally, the last aspect I’d like to bring up is frequency. I’ll attempt to illustrate this one with a story:
I was in 6th or 7th grade, sitting in math class. For whatever reason, the projector was creating this high-pitched electrical hum. No one else seemed to notice it. But of course, I did. This particular noise cut through my very being. It was distracting, and for whatever reason, it was overwhelming. Literally almost painful. I mustered up the courage to say something to the teacher:
Me: “Hey, what’s that noise?”
Teacher: “What noise? I don’t hear any noise.”
Me: “High-pitched whine.”
Teacher “… oh, that. That’s just the projector. It’s not that loud. Just put headphones on.”
Even the noise cancelling headphones (Those cheap noise-muffling special-ed standardized ones they give to all the schools which were never comfortable because they created a freaking vacuum seal around your ears.) couldn’t stop this whine from cutting into my very being. Why was this such a big deal? After all, I deal with extraneous noise like this all the time. Well, it’s because this whine fell into what I like to call the Magical Frequency Range Where Everything Starts Hurting™. Many autistic people may be extra sensitive, or even only sensitive, to sounds in a certain frequency range. For me, I’m extra sensitive to sounds in higher frequencies, but this could of course vary from person to person.
Of course, volume plays a role in all of this, as quieter noise is always easier to cope with than louder noise. It’s why I wear earplugs almost everywhere in public. However, this is not the only factor.
These are only a few specific factors that can affect sensory processing and overload in autistic people. They will affect each autistic person differently. My hope with this is that I can educate people so that different factors can be considered and better, more sensory friendly environments can be created for autistic people. At least know that there’s a lot more to this than just simple “loudness.”