I hate going to the movies.
Actually, I hate going anywhere that requires people to sit quietly for an extended period of time and just watch or listen.
The reason I do not generally enjoy these things is not because I cannot sit still and be quiet, it’s because I cannot tune out the OTHER people who cannot sit still and be quiet.
And I may sound a little paranoid, but I’m pretty sure fate likes to mess with me when I go to the movies. No matter how empty the theater is, undoubtedly the “distractors” will find me: The parents with several small, antsy children, the teenagers who are just looking for a place to hang out and goof off, the couple that wants to analyze and discuss the plot of the movie, the guy chomping on popcorn, slurping his soda, and shaking the cup to dislodge the ice in the hopes of finding more soda near the bottom.
They FIND me.
They find me at the symphony. Just when the orchestra reaches a particularly moving part of a Mozart Concerto, the little old lady behind me tries to open a cough drop wrapper…very…very….slowly. Crinkle! (Pause) Crinkle! Crinkle! Crinkle! (Pause) Crinkle! This is followed by the “mouth noises” of the cough drop clicking against her teeth as her tongue moves the lozenge from one area of her mouth to another. I cannot focus on or enjoy the music until the noises stop. Mercifully, the noises DO stop, only to be followed by her loudly whispering to her friend, “Do you know where the ladies’ room is?”
Sometimes I hear sounds nobody else even notices. The “thump, thump, thump” of the music from a party down the street plays on my every nerve until I literally feel my chest tightening and my heart beating faster, like the start of a panic attack. A person chewing and swallowing in the same quiet room makes me feel physically sick. Don’t even get me started on gum-chewing.
So, yes, you may have figured out that I have very sensitive hearing, which seems to be wired directly into my nervous system. I’ve been cursed with an almost complete inability to filter out extraneous noises that disrupt an otherwise quiet environment or interrupt a situation that requires my focus and attention. The distracting sounds start as a small irritation, but as they continue they fill me with anxiety. The anxiety builds to a point where I am forced to escape or make the sound stop. When it reaches this point, it’s a very good thing I do not possess the ability to shoot laser beams from my eyeballs. (Yes, consider yourself lucky, college student who was the test monitor who administered my teacher certification exams and sat at the front of the classroom sipping Diet Coke, eating a bag of crispy potato chips, and whispering and giggling about your weekend to your friend who stopped by, while I tried to focus on an exam that cost hundreds of dollars to register for and would determine my ability to secure a job in my chosen career and collect a decent paycheck. You are VERY LUCKY. Just sayin’.)
At times I’ve wondered, what is wrong with me? Why am I so darn sensitive? Why can’t I just learn to tune things out like other people? As I have read up on the brain in an attempt to understand my son’s autism better, it has actually been a bit of a relief to learn that some people are just “wired differently”, both for learning and for sensing.
Throughout day-to-day life, we take for granted that everyone’s senses are registering and understanding the world in pretty much the same way. Roses smell like roses. Strawberries taste like strawberries. Mozart Concertos sound like Mozart Concertos (sans cough drops, one hopes).
So it’s true that humans have a relatively common basis of sensory experiences. It appears, however, that my son actually senses things differently. In addition to autism, my son has what is known as SPD, or Sensory Processing Disorder*. A simple way to explain SPD is that although my son’s sight and hearing have been tested to be completely normal and his motor skills and movement are developmentally appropriate for his age, his brain does not process the signals he receives from his senses the same as other children.
Individuals on the autism spectrum often have difficulty filtering and utilizing the information coming in through their senses. And it’s not just the five senses we’re familiar with – vision, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. SPD also can affect movement, balance, and body position (vestibular and proprioceptive senses). A person can be over-sensitive or under-sensitive, over-responsive or under-responsive. They might seek a sensory experience or avoid it.
Through observation of his behavior, it appears that my son is more visually sensitive – he seeks lines and patterns, and he loves lights and lightbulbs. He seeks out vestibular and proprioceptive input through spinning, jumping, and crashing, yet he tends to avoid some kinds of swinging. His feeding issues stem from an avoidance of certain textures and tastes of food. But, by far, his most distressing over-sensitivity is his hearing.
Some causes of his auditory distress are pretty obvious: Toys that move and make noises frightened him. A clock striking the hour or a toilet flushing might send him running from a room. He might become inconsolable if a rooster crows on TV. He has a physical aversion to places where sounds are loud and confusing, like the grocery store and the gymnasium at school. He refuses to go outside to play if a neighbor down the street is using a leaf-blower. Even the sound of my voice sometimes causes him to howl and clap both hands over his ears.
But some causes of his auditory distress are more of a mystery, like during a ride home on the highway not long ago. As I merged into traffic and brought the car up to speed, my son suddenly started shrieking and kicking his feet, his hands covering his ears. I searched for reasons for his behavior: the radio was off, no one was talking, the windows were up. Still this continued until, hoping to find a way to calm him, I slowed down to take the next exit. As the car slowed, my boy took his hands from his ears and his crying quieted. When I sped up to the speed limit on the back road, he became agitated again. I realized it was the sound of the car engine – my son was bothered when it revved at certain speeds. So I kept the car at a steady, slower speed on the back roads. (It was my own version of the movie, “Speed”, only my movie would be called, “Deceleration”, starring me as Sandra Bullock’s Annie, my husband as Keanu Reeves’s Jack, with Dennis Hopper on the cell phone warning us there was a preschooler in the backseat set to explode into a full meltdown if the car went above 50mph. Yes, at times my husband and I have all the suspense and drama of an action/adventure movie. Although taking the slow, scenic back roads through the countryside to get home would not for make a very exciting plot twist, I suppose.)
We all have those things that make us crazy – certain smells might give you a headache, a particular sound might send chills up your spine, the motion as you ride in a car might make you carsick. We learn ways to cope by either addressing the problem or avoiding it.
This got me thinking about my own issues with tuning out noises. The discomfort I experience with my auditory sensitivity, milder than my son’s I’m sure, gives me an idea of how overwhelming and even painful the world must be at times for him. What’s more, my son does not possess the skills that I have to cope with the noises that bother him. He does not have the communication to express how he feels or to ask someone to stop. Nor has he learned the not-so-subtle ability to clear his throat loudly and shoot a stink-eye at someone (passive-aggressive, yes, but less violent than laser beams).
My heightened sense of hearing, at times a curse, provides a glimpse into the reasons for my son’s anxiety and agitation stemming from his SPD. The blessing is my ability to understand his discomfort. It’s an awareness that allows me to identify a source of distress and provide him the tools to cope (like wearing headphones in the gym) or help him avoid the issue in the future (like enjoying a museum only on “sensory friendly” days to avoid noisy crowds).
It’s a connection we share, my boy and I.
Not long ago, we found ourselves in a building that must have had thin walls, because I kept hearing an irritating noise coming from the floor above. I just couldn’t ignore it no matter how hard I tried. Looking at my son with his hands firmly placed over his ears, I smiled. “I know, Buddy. That IS really annoying!”
Yup, when it comes to noises, my boy totally gets me.
* Please note: I’m a mom, not an expert in SPD, senses, the brain, etc. Consult an Occupational Therapist if you have questions about SPD, or check out one of my favorite books on SPD, “The Out-of-Sync Child”, by Carol Stock Kranowitz.