This is the third in a series of blog posts we’re writing this year that will delve into some of the specific characteristics of Asperger’s syndrome, how they manifest in Cameron, and the impact that they have on our relationship and life on the spectrum’s edge. We’ll be using Tony Attwood’s The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome (2008) to bring you the facts alongside our unique anecdotes of past and present to illustrate the Aspie traits in action. Read the first post here and the second post here.
Kirsten: Sensation overload – a hypersensitivity in one or more of the senses – is common in those on the autism spectrum. For Cameron, every transaction seems to be a struggle to his system, whether it be with another human or an inanimate object. This is because his senses (= message centres) are getting pinged all the time (= too many messages) and so it’s a constant battle for him to focus on what is in front of him, let alone plan for the future.
Sensory overload is different for different people on the spectrum. Some will dislike being touched, whereas Cameron loves to be hugged and receive massages. Sound, however, is a particular hypersensitive area for Cameron. As Tony Attwood writes:
‘Clinical observation and personal accounts of people with Asperger’s syndrome suggest that there are three types of noise that are perceived as extremely unpleasant. The first category is sudden, unexpected noises, that one adult with Asperger’s syndrome described as ‘sharp’, such as a dog barking, telephone ringing, someone coughing, a school fire alarm, the clicking of a pen top, or crackling sounds. The second category is high-pitched, continuous sounds, particularly the sound of small electric motors used in domestic electrical equipment such as food processors or vacuum cleaners or the high-pitched sound of a toilet flushing. The third category is confusing, complex or multiple sounds such as occur in shopping centres or noisy social gatherings.’ (2008, p. 275)
Cameron has recently been describing life in the form of ‘shocks’. In fact, he has been making lists of them. Not bad things that happen, necessarily, but things that have been a shock to his system, causing him stress, anxiety, and eventually leading to a complete meltdown. Part of his reason for recording these ‘shocks’ is so that he can remember, at that meltdown stage, what has come before to get him to that ‘shell-shocked’ point.
As I write this, we are going through a period of ‘shocks’ where so many things are going wrong, and we feel we are almost constantly battling to stay afloat. During times like this, when ‘the routine is murdered’, and Cameron can find no peace or equilibrium in his days (or nights), his hypersensitivity to noise is at it’s worst. I hate that I have to add to that by doing laundry, for example. Yesterday the noise of the washing machine’s spin cycle sent him running outside in the middle of eating his lunch just to get away from it. And this is the difference. Lots of us might not like the sound of a dog constantly barking (while others don’t notice it at all!), but this type of noise will set Cameron off his course for the rest of the day, and that happens all too often.
I do my best to tailor my routine to fit Cameron’s needs, which is something we’ve written about before (We just do things differently post), but during these ‘walking-on-eggshells’ kind of times, there really is no winning. Aspie hubby is left wishing that he was living in a home of his own that was completely soundproofed, while at the same time resenting that he would have to live like this – ‘Why can’t the world just shut up!’.
Cameron: I am writing this some time after Kirsten wrote the above, and I think I am probably for now at least, a little bit better than I was at her time of writing.
First thing I have to remember is I don’t have to reply to each of Kirsten’s points. I’m actually quite proud that I remembered that by myself. I’m pretty tempted to do it though.
I describe my life in terms of shocks, because when I am worn out, any change from my routine affects my psyche as though a salivating ghoul just jumped out at me. Of course I prefer good news to bad news, good changes to bad changes, but the shock value is exactly the same. I can be happy in my heart that Kirsten has come home early, but I’m still shocked and disrupted because of it. I often then can’t return to whatever I was doing before the shock. If she were to say that she’d won a million dollars, I’d be very happy but we wouldn’t go out to celebrate because I’d have to spend the rest of the day watching random brainless you-tube clips, trying to gain some recovery from 1. her exuberance 2. that I was interrupted and 3. that this new luck means further change.
I have kept a record of all the shocks that have happened, because I need to know there is a reason for me being ‘suddenly’ so bad. I have a very poor memory for a lot of bad stuff that has transpired, I think it’s a survival mechanism, but because of this if I have a melt down (ie, rolling on the floor, screaming, jerking around the lounge with my limbs seizing up into weird angles, unable to unclench my hands that have locked together, with a voice-over in my head concurrently telling me what an idiot I must look), it sometimes seems as if only one or two things have caused it. I then wonder what the hell is wrong with me. With a record of events, I can see that I have broken down as a consequence of being relentlessly persecuted by life (aka, people).
I really do wish the world would shut up. Just be calmer, even. When I am at my worst, everything seems louder, the volume has been turned up to 11. I became aware only recently that my body is constantly in a state of tension. It’s my default, apparently. I began to notice it recently, in different parts of my body, when I was wandering around a shopping mall.
Why are my legs so tense? Hmm. But don’t they always feel that way?
Anyway, the more shocks, the more tension, the more tension, the greater the hypersensitivity, and as Kirsten says, sound is the worst.
I do like that I see people wandering around more with noise cancelling headphones, because it means they are quiet. It lets me pretend that the world is going to hush up a bit (as people get encapsulated into alternative realities and walk into traffic?)
I’m not sure how well such devices would work for me because I might find them disorienting. As much as I am distressed by unexpected noise, I need to know when danger is coming to feel safe. Real double edged sword, that one. The other thing is, I’m not sure how they would deal with low-end noise. Things like the neighbour’s awful taste in ‘music’ with its slow, long bass notes, or rumbling road levelling graders.
I have toughened up somewhat by playing Dungeons & Dragons (I may just be the first person in the history of the game to say that), because the environment at the gaming centre is often quite raucous and if I’m honest I’m only half aware of what’s going on in the game, because of the noise overload and the fatigue that comes with it. But I still have treasure troves of fun! I know to expect that there though, what is dispiriting is knowing that when I come back to where we live, more loud noise could come from anywhere, at any time.
Why don’t people like quietude? Are they afraid of it? There probably are many out there who actually agree with me, at least I hope so. I once had a business idea of having a sound-proofed building with sound-proofed cubicles in the middle of town, that people would pay $10 for 20 minutes of quiet. I would live there.