Friday, 29 October 2010

Coping with foreground noise

blurred blue squiggle, representing sensory overload
It occurs to me that in my last post I waxed lyrical about sensory sensitivity, but didn't actually explain how I handle it. This is handy information, because I may have lucked onto something other Aspies could use.

Please share any of your own in the comments - there'll be all sorts of things I haven't covered because it doesn't affect me personally, or maybe just hasn't occurred to me.

So, onwards...

  • I cut most of the tags off my clothes to reduce irritation, and also the hanging ribbons one finds on some womens' clothing.
  • I'm choosy about fabrics. Stretchy cotton (ie good quality t-shirt fabric) is best for me, non-stretch 100% synthetic fibres are the worst. This goes not only for clothes but home linens, too - my life is much improved since I started making my own pillow cases out of old t-shirts.
  • I can't use certain kinds of hair conditioner, because it has an unpleasant slimy texture which 'sticks' to my skin for hours afterwards. Ironically expensive shampoos are worse (Clairol herbal essences in particular) while cheap ones are generally OK. I've no idea what the one I usually use is called, but it's usually right on the bottom shelf and less than $3 a bottle.\
  • Light touch itches like hell. I prefer a firm hug or handshake to a limp one, and use a heavy blanket all year round - even if it means I need to have a dfan running as well. I don't sleep well under a light cover. I'd really like to invest in a proper weighted blanket if I ever get around to it.
  • My balance is very poor, so I ALWAYS keep a hand on the rails of stairs and escalators, in case I go over.
  • Similarly I don't have the spatial awareness to jump off or over things. So if I have to get out of the back of a ute, for instance, I'll sit on the edge and then push myself off to the ground rather than trying to jump off from a standing position. Yeah, it looks wussy, but otherwise I misjudge the distance and sprain ankles.
  • Sound is a particular problem for me - ironic, since I work with it for a living. I never leave a TV or radio playing unattended, the way some people do 'for company'. I am much more settled and comfortable without the extra noise.
  • I can NOT listen to two people at once. Say I'm on the phone and someone comes and starts talking to me in person as well: I literally lose the ability to understand either of them. It's as though they've both just suddenly started speaking a different language. If I can't get one of them to shut up, I just have to walk away.
  • I generally turn the sound effects and music off when I'm playing games.
  • In a noisy environment headphones with music apparently help some people, but I find not - in places like buses or trains it's better to be aware of one's surroundings than try to drown them out with music.
  • Squeaks, rattles, drips and clanks are horrid. I fix them. If I can't fix the noise, I tape up/grease/jam a piece of plasticine around the offending object until it can be properly fixed.
  • My parents have finally realised they'll actually get a conversation out of me over the dinner table if they turn the TV off first. Otherwise, I'm too busy fighting the intrusive noise to make small talk.
  • I'm personally not overly bothered by visual stimulus unless I'm already overstimulated in other ways, but fluro lights are sometimes a problem. There's a certain harshness to that light which creates something akin to a crawling effect on my skin, like a light but constant pressure.
  • Chessboard type patterns and grids - like white tiles with black grout - sometimes appear to move and bulge. This isn't so much a problem as a random weird neurological phenomenon, but it does mean I sometimes can't really tell how far away the floor is. Plain floors are easier to judge. Apparently there's a similar problem which affects older people with dementia - a large black spot on a white rug, for example, actually looks like a raised section which must be stepped over leading to increased risk of falls.
Taste, and textures and scents specific to food
  • I cannot eat prepackaged yoghurt with chunks of fruit in it. The chunks are slimy and smell and taste rotten, even if they're not. Plain yoghurt is a much better option, or run the fruit yoghurt through the blender to get rid of those Godawful lumps of slime.
  • Most vegetables and fruit - and some pickles and jams- taste incredible sour to me. It's something to do with an increased sensitivity to certain compounds in plant based foods. So once I find something I can handle - bananas, broccoli, carrots, corn - I stick to it.
  • Some store-bought recipe bases have that same slimy texture that causes trouble with hair conditioner. I find Aldi-branded recipe-base-in-a-jar particularly bad, and Patak's curry sauces about the best.
  • I don't eat in the kitchen. The cooking smells put me right off my food, strangely. I'm OK if I eat in another room.

Foreground noise

The sensory sensitivity side of Aspergers isn't one that gets a lot of press, maybe because it's one of the hardest to explain. So, here goes an exercise in explaining the inexplicable.

You know how your brain filters out excess incoming data? Maybe you don't. Your brain does it so efficiently you may never have noticed.

blurred image with no recognisable elements, illustrating the concept of sensory overload
No, I can't "just ignore it"
Take a moment to really hear what's going on around you. The traffic noise. The clock ticking. The tap dripping. The dog barking three houses down. Wind noise. Birdsong. The radio on next door. The squeaky exhaust fan. Kids walking past on their way home from school. Your flatmate's noisy 'flu-riddled breathing. The air conditioning. You get the idea - there's an absolute cacophony of mindless noise going on at any given moment, even if you're deep in the bush a hundred miles from civilisation.

But your brain is very efficient at filtering most of that nonsense out so you can concentrate on the bits you actually need to hear - your child's voice above the chorus of the playground, your mates' conversation over the thump of the music in the pub, the water cooler chat over the humming fluros and the ticking clock. Your brain's on duty all the time, filtering out all that nonsense.

Mine doesn't do that.

I hear all that nonsense, all the time.

And it's not just noise, it's all the senses. Random kitchen smells. The rub of an annoying tag in my shirt. Flickering lights. It's endless.

Supermarkets are particularly painful. The lighting is usually too bright, and many of the fluro tubes are past their best, and hum or flicker. The in-store radio is intrusive and the layer of announcements of the public address system on top of it is loud enough to be genuinely painful. The fruit and meat sections stink, children are screaming, trolley wheels squeak on the slick floor and people with BO brush against you and invade your personal space.

Small wonder supermarkets are a prime spot for autistic children to have a meltdown. They are hell on earth for a person with sensory sensitivities.

This is hard to understand, I know. Within the general mass of human difference, there are generally agreed parameters for what is a comfortable level of sound/light/touch.

Those parameters are different for people with sensory sensitivities.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

The genius myth

There's a myth that all Aspies are geniuses. We might struggle with interpersonal skills, know far too much about the history of Doctor Who, and react badly to a humming light fitting, but it's OK because we have amazing savant super-brain powers to make up for it.

closeup of hand doing a sudoku number puzzle
Screw your sudoku
And on paper, I'm probably one of those super brains.  When I had an IQ test as part of the diagnostic process, I came out with a neat 140.  Which, if you've ever seen me trying to get by in everyday life, you'll agree is kind of ridiculous.

The whole thing was skewed out of whack by my verbal skills, which were off the scale.  But everything else was on the scale.  Quite a way down it, in some cases.  I'm just not convinced that Wechsler's arbitrary figure really has any bearing on who or what I am as a person.

Some Aspies are very bright, into the genius end of the scale and beyond, and contribute great and wonderful new things to humanity.  But others aren't.  And if you broaden that out to look at the whole autism spectrum, that spread of abilities becomes even more pronounced.

And for people who aren't super brains, the last thing we need is the extra guilt of being told we're letting the side down because we're not bright enough to be properly Aspergian.   First you're expected to be normal, and you're not, and that's awkward. Then the Aspergers thing comes out and you're expected to be brilliant.  And when you're not that either, it gets awkward all over again.

I'm also not comfortable with the idea that we have special talents to "make up for" our struggles in other areas.  We shouldn't have to make up.  Nobody should have to justify their existence. People with Down syndrome are not expected to become elite athletes.  People who use wheelchairs are not assumed to be great artists.  Nobody expects Lupus to confer superior wedding planning skills.  People with those conditions simply deserve to exist because we all do.  Similarly, Aspies should not be expected to be scientifically or mathematically brilliant as the pay-off for having the temerity to be born the way we were.

I might have a high IQ on paper, but I'm no brain. I'm especially poor at the type of intelligence stereotypically associated with the Aspie geek stereotype.  I'm rubbish at maths - to the point that the logbook in the work vehicle is full of sums because I can't figure out 567 minus 234 in my head - and while science fascinates me, my attempts at studying it at school left a trail of disasters.

What intelligence I do have is bound up with artistic pursuits. I am fluent in words and sounds and pictures, in the construction of poetry and song, the layering of the spoken word with music and other sound, the use of colour and form to evoke mood.

In our society - the bit I float through, at least - artsy, 'humanities' based skills are valued less than technical or business skills. I'm not getting into a rant about how sad this is (tempting as it is) but just explaining that here I am, 30 years old, just about numerate, scientifically useless, and the possessor of a range of low-value, lesser-importance skills.

I'm no genius.

And I still have as much right to exist as everyone else.

Friday, 15 October 2010

The gratitude conundrum

I am grateful.

I am grateful for many things. For the roof over my head, currently protecting me from torrential rain. For good drainage in my part of town, which means I'm not going to end up like the poor souls on the Sunshine Coast with a foot of water gushing through their house after similar rain. For electricity and internet access and running water. For my health - which isn't brilliant but not bad - and for my family, who are all mad but I love them anyway and they, mostly, love me too.

I am grateful for my diagnosis, which brought the reassurance that I'm not mad or defective or bloody-minded, that there's a reason I am as I am.

I am grateful for the opportunity to work in a meaningful job and earn enough money to keep said roof over my head.  I am grateful for those at work who take my condition seriously.

But while I'm grateful, I'm not going to grovel my thanks on bended knee. Because what I have is wonderful, but it's not more than I deserve.
sunrise with text reading what I have is wonderful, but it's no more than I deserve

This week at work there was a conversation, utterly unrelated to Aspergers, which left me with the feeling that I was somehow not expressing sufficient gratitude for the accommodations made for me. I've turned it over in my head from time to time over the last few days, trying to work out exactly what it is that's annoying me.

Part of it is that the accommodations made for me have been small - nothing compared to the complete rebuilding of both entrances we'd have to do to make the place wheelchair accessible, for instance. But a bigger part of it is the implication that those accommodations have been made out of the goodness of individuals'  hearts. No, actually. It's the law.

The law says one must made reasonable accommodations for a staff member with a disability, and it's hard to argue that "please don't talk to me when I'm on the phone. Could you write me a note instead?" is unreasonable.

So while I am grateful for my (mostly) accepting workplace, I don't think I should have to 'prove' my gratitude.

Ah, here at last, after much navel gazing, is the crux of the issue: we were having an argument. Nothing serious, nothing remotely related to Aspergers, just a fairly standard disagreement between two professionals. But the unspoken vibe was "you're very presence inconveniences us, so why are you causing more trouble by voicing an opinion? Sit down, shut up and be grateful."

Sod that. Accommodating a staff member with a disability doesn't mean that staff member owes you a favour.

I am grateful for many, many things. But that doesn't mean you've got one over on me.