Too Noisy

TPGA is observing Autism Acceptance Month by featuring accounts from autistic people about the differences accommodations (or lack thereof)
make in their lives. Today’s story is from Kathryn Hedges, about how noisy environments can disrupt her ability to process and function.

Kathryn Hedges

I don’t fit the autistic stereotypes people learn from “autism awareness” campaigns: I’m an adult female who can converse with you (most of the time) and live independently with fewer supports than the average non-autistic person. (At least based on the number of times a week people tell me their friends or family did XYZ for them so why don’t I ask mine for help.) I’ve worked hard as an adult to learn social skills, which helps hide my autism and give me a veneer of “high functioning” over my interior “low functioning” with sensory issues and emotional regulation.

One of the most disabling aspects of autism for me is how it affects my auditory processing. By this I mean two things: I have difficulty understanding speech over background noises, and my brain can’t filter out background noise when I’m trying to concentrate. It even seems to “clear” my working memory so I have to keep restarting any thought processes.

For example, if a specialist’s office calls me to make an appointment and the construction crew is cutting metal outside, I miss most of the words they’re saying. I have to ask them to repeat, over and over, and they need me to multitask by switching to my calendar app to set an appointment. But I can’t remember any of the dates they offered me. What would be more effective and accurate would be giving me online access to set appointments with any doctor to whom I’ve been referred, not just doctors I’ve had appointments with already. Instead, I need to make a separate trip to make the appointment if I want to ensure I don’t put the wrong information on my calendar.

Group meetings are a waste of time and energy for me if they’re held in a noisy pub or busy coffeehouse where people chatter loudly. I can’t hear the speaker in my group over the babble of other conversations, echoing off the hard floors and other surfaces. It’s much more rewarding to meet with people in quieter places, one on one or just a few at a time. Unfortunately, people want to get to know me in a group setting first, which doesn’t work well when I usually need to withdraw to protect myself from sensory overload. (This is part of why I’m having trouble building a friend network.)

One of the reasons I had to leave my last job and go on disability was that I had lost the last shreds of ability to work when I could hear other people talking, and we were all in a small office together without room for cubicles. If I had a regular job, I would need a private office, because listening to music loudly enough to drown other people out would damage my ears. I can’t wear earplugs because I have tinnitus and blocking my ears makes it worse. Luckily, I have my own art studio/office by myself and it’s above the street noises. If I had to request a private office at a workplace, that kind of accommodation would be difficult, both because it’s more expensive and also private offices denote higher status.

So, the accommodation I need is help working around my difficulty hearing and understanding, in noisy situations.