The room was large, a concrete block walled room with minimal furnishing. Groups of people scattered around chatting, a movie playing with volume reasonably loud. Babies and toddlers at play and at war with each other. Many conversations flow. Many people engaged in their conversations and clearly enjoying the social interactions they are having.
Some sit alone, doing jigsaw puzzles or engaging in colouring in pictures, seemingly oblivious to the echo chamber experience that is currently my life.
Strands of conversations bounce around and pass in and out of my conscious thoughts, lines from the film do the same, a person talks to me in the midst of it and it is nigh impossible to comprehend what they are wanting to communicate to me. The squeals of babies cause pain to my head as they pierce through my ears and seem to reverberate around my skull.
It’s like being assaulted by sound echoing in every direction with constantly changing velocity around my head, my brain, my consciousness. It is a real physical pain. It may sound strange but it really is like a physical thing, just as maintaining eye contact strangely causes physical pain.
It’s like an echo chamber in a sense, yet a true echo is far more predictable. One of my most favourite places in the world is a little place in Katoomba NSW Australia called echo point. It is a lookout at the iconic Australian landmark of The Three Sisters. Hear you can confidently shout out a word and experience it predictably come back to you, hence the name of the place. You stand overlooking the picturesque Megalong Valley, it is a perfect bowl to create this effect. Even with many people partaking in the experience it is not like the experience of being in a crowded room, a busy café or restaurant. It is far easier being in that real echo place.
Many times over my life I have indulged in yelling Cooeee over that valley and enjoying the experience of it bouncing back to me. The experience of being in this room however is not one of enjoyment but of pain, of frustration, of developing overload and testing of my ability to not respond inappropriately to the sensory input that assaults me.
I know that oftentimes I do respond inappropriately to these situations. I allow myself to get to a point of not being able to bear it any longer resulting in a small explosion of frustration. Unfortunately what is an expression of frustration to me is experienced by others as an experience of aggression and anger. It is never meant to be such, yet that is how it is experienced by others.
I do believe that myself, and probably others too, as autistics could do better and managing the rising storm within us in these situations. It is a terrible feeling which compounds on the already difficult situation to see that you have evoked fear and loathing in others after you respond out of overwhelm.
I don’t pretend to know the answer to this but I feel that perhaps it is a two-pronged response that is needed. We autistics need to continue to communicate the difficulties experienced and the likely responses they will result in. The second prong of the response is that accommodation and understanding by others needs to improve.
For as long as autistics and others are snickered upon for wearing of ear defenders and ear plugs and headphones, for as long as autistics feel that others believe they should just suck it up and deal with it and just tune it out we will continue to have this issue. I as an autistic need non autistics to hear and understand that sensory overload such as this is not just a mild annoyance, it is a very difficult and impacting and often debilitating experience.
Personally the experience is debilitating in that I temporarily lose, or at least have great difficulty, accessing my spoken language to effectively communicate the difficulties I am experiencing. I think it is in overcoming this difficulty that is in large part a major contributor to my explosive response.
I wonder what your thoughts are on this…
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