Sensory problems

In terms of my day to day functioning, other than needing my routine to go to plan, the biggest issue I face is my sensitivity to excess information.

I am very sensitive to noise.

To qualify, this does not mean that I cannot bear every and any noise. In some circumstances, I can put up with noise. It all depends on context, focus, control, situation, and my general state of anxiety at the time.

So in one context, I might be able to walk into New Look or another clothes’ store to try on the clothes, while loud music is blaring from the speakers. I hate this noise and wish they would turn it off or reduce its volume, but I continue to look at the clothes because I am in a state of complete focus; in this moment, I am one hundred percent looking at clothes, one of my special interests,  and nothing else matters. I have to complete my plan. Also, I expect that there will be noise in the shop, and so it is predictable. However, I still feel stressed and irritated because, really, why do shops have to play such loud music? Sometimes, I ignore the fact I’m getting stressed and end up swearing or barging past people in the store, such as as a few weeks ago when I went into a toy shop to buy some stickers, but ended up dropping about 7 packs on the floor and marching out because there were too many people. I thought I could deal with it, but on this occasion my stoical attempt at detachment  and ”grinning and bearing” the discomfort, did not work.

The worst noise, regardless of volume, is unpredictable noise, particularly noise that is combined with other stimuli, such as movement. This is part of the reason why I hate unstructured parties and walking while talking down busy streets. Noise is also harder to deal with when I am engaging in a task that involves complex mental activity, such as reading,  listening to a conversation, or when I need to switch off in order to fall asleep.

I love reading because I enjoy learning, and it gives me a sense of satisfaction and completion when I have finished a book. Reading makes my world feel more ordered and comprehensible, and I love language and words. However, reading is also a stressful activity. I can’t identify with people who say they read to relax. How can you relax when reading is so hard work? I can’t just concentrate on reading and let the story naturally unfurl in my head. I have to whisper the words out loud in order to stay focused, and the smallest noise sends a jolt through the pit of my stomach. I wear headphones attached to the computer, through which I play white noise,  a steady hum that helps block out the unpredictable, distracting noise that I can’t filter. Yet my ears still pick this noise out, and the result is constant adrenaline fueled tension. The thud thud of neighbours walking upstairs and the waterfall sound of flushing toilets,  however quiet and sporadic this noise might be, makes me feel extremely tense because it is random, outside of my control, distracting, and therefore potentially interferes with the need to successfully complete my reading routine.

The fact that most of the time I can complete my routine through all the stress is little consolation. The fear and tension zaps me of energy, and can make my life very difficult. When I’m finding it particularly hard to concentrate because of noise, I will sit in the bathroom with the fan on. This white noise completely blocks the offending random banging, but I still find it hard to concentrate and reading is never an immersive experience. Reading is hard work. I think that my sensory difficulties with noise were partly why I struggled so much with reading comprehension  and general learning at school.

I have learnt that it is easier for me to follow films or TV dramas if I have subtitles. I need to see the words as well as hear them in order to fully process their meaning. Just looking at the words or hearing them does not provide me with enough information. Although I will  catch snatches of meaning, enough to show the other person I am broadly listening, whole chunks can be left out. This means that deciphering the message is so hard work that I will periodically lose track. I often wish that there was a virtual subtitle option I could switch on when people are talking to me!

As I walk down the street, I feel very anxious whenever I see a van. This is because vans signal the possibility of construction work, drills, and other offensive sounds. Moving cars, exhaust fumes, bonfires and cigarette smoke, all add to my daily stress. However, I internalise this stress, which means that many people don’t realise how tense I am feeling. Furthermore,  because so much mental energy is taken up just keeping the world at bay,  with its noise, smells, movement, and harsh lighting, it is very hard for me to initiate tasks outside of my routine, and I often spend far too much time procrastinating on mindless tasks, such as surfing social media. Any task that requires concentration is difficult when noise threatens to render me immobile.

Daily living is exceptionally hard work. Every day I am scared and nervous about the possibility of random noise. Every activity requires distraction free computation and analysis. I fear the unknown. I need my reading routine and other important activities, such as cooking or eating, to go to plan, without disruption by noise.

I did not realise the extent of my sensory difficulties until quite recently. After all, what is normal to me went largely unquestioned through most of my life. Growing up I often felt overwhelmed among groups of people, and became very quiet. I did not ask myself why this was, but later thought it was because I was ”weird”, as I did not know I had autism.  I also find it hard to stay on track during conversations because I have to picture the meaning in order to make sense of the words, and this can be a slow and laborious process. I often switch off .

Sometime during mid childhood I learnt that putting my fingers in my ears helped me fall asleep when my parents were chatting until late. I still sleep with a finger in my ear to this day. I am a light sleeper, and the smallest sound will wake me up. This has worsened as I have grown older. Most days I am at least a little bit tired, and it is remarkable that I am writing this when I actually feel quite awake! The feeling is good, but I know it will not last and that the tight band feeling across my eyes and sinuses will plague me again very soon.

As a child I was terrified of fireworks and loud bangs, such as balloons popping and party crackers. Yet, I persuaded my parents to take me to the school firework display because I did not realise that I would be scared. I spent the whole time hiding in the toilets , and then dragged my parents home in a state of complete panic.

I also got very anxious whenever we traveled on coaches because they were too hot and made me feel sick.  I remember, when I was very little,  my dad phoning different companies while on holiday, to check that the coach had air conditioning. If it didn’t, I would cry and refuse to board!

Throughout my childhood, I had to walk on tip toes whenever I had no shoes on or was wearing PE  plimsoles at school. The ground felt uneven, and my feet felt very uncomfortable, whenever I walked with my feet flat on the ground. As a teenager, my feet became less sensitive, but I still prefer to walk on tiptoes when I have no shoes on, particularly when walking on the kitchen floor. I like the feeling of pressure in my lower legs, and it helps me walk without my feet wobbling. I also enjoy pacing on my toes when I feel excited or full of energy, along with a few spring jumps!

On the positive side, I really enjoy eating;  tastes and textures provide me with sensory joy. All my life I’ve been in love with food. Eating is a routine activity that is predictable as well as sensual. I enjoy cooking and experimenting with flavours. I think my extreme love of food might be a positive aspect of having heightened senses, which is complemented by my synaesthetic coloured numbers and letters.And because of my heightened auditory sense, I am also very good at learning different languages and copying sentences in other languages, such as French, quickly and quite fluently.

To conclude, my inability to block out competing sounds in order to focus on activities that require concentration or relaxation, severely disrupts my functioning, even if this is not always apparent to other people. We live in a very noisy world. Non autistic people might be able to carry on with their work and do multiple tasks during the day, alongside the random sounds of existence, but I can only do one activity at a time. When I’m focusing, my mind is like a laser beam, but the huge amount of energy expended means it is hard for me to move on seamlessly to other activities. My brain has to cool down between tasks, and it can feel easier to zone out. This is an inefficient way of existing, and is part of the reason why I cannot work. Sensory issues are the hardest part of being autistic, yet I carry on regardless because I have no choice.

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