Chaos and Volume: My Autistic Ears

Noise is really hard for me to deal with. Of all sensory input, hearing is definitely the one I struggle with the most day to day, far more than any other. I am easily irritated with noise, and in extreme situations it can overwhelm to the point of incoherence.

It’s easy for others who do not live in my head to guess that volume is the main problem here. After all, I often use earplugs to moderate noise and allow me to be in environments I would otherwise not function well in. Yes, volume is part of the problem, but it’s not the more significant one. What really bothers me is what I perceive as chaos.

Chaotic noise is the sound of multiple people talking at once, music that I’m not familiar with, or an unexpected Harley driving by. It is a radio show playing in one room while a TV show plays in the next. It is trying to have a conversation while others talk nearby. Is is the sensory hell of the laundromat, with machines turning, children crying, a TV blaring, a coin machine dispensing, and many conversations in every direction.

I can handle a certain amount of chaotic noise for a certain amount of time at a certain volume. However, the more chaotic, louder, and longer I have to deal with it, the less and less I can process. I was recently in a class of a few hundred people in which we suddenly broke into small groups and were supposed to discuss something for a few minutes. Suddenly a hundred people were shouting at the top of their lungs all in one room, and I was immediately unable to function at all, completely overwhelmed by the ocean of noise. I left half way through the (not school related) class and wished I had left earlier. Other days I can handle lower level chaotic noise long enough to get through a work day, only to be utterly exhausted by the end of the day.

Sensible noise, or noise without chaos, can be actively excellent for me. Like many people, I spend most of my time in public with headphones on. I am lucky to have been given an amazing pair of Bose Bluetooth Headphones for my birthday last year and I basically live with them on. Listening to podcasts, audio books, and familiar music helps enormously, unless the surrounding world gets loud enough to break through my auditory bubble of sensibility.

Sometimes I pound overstimulation and chaos out of my brain with thuddy familiar pop music at high volume. This is counter intuitive if you make the mistake of thinking volume is the problem with sound. However, it makes perfect sense when you understand that the sensory problems many autistic people experience are less about too MUCH stimulation, and more about stimulation being confusing and harder to process. When I struggle to differentiate between the sound of the person talking to me and the street noise around us I become overwhelmed not by the volume as much as the processing power required to decode which sounds are important. That kind of noise is similar to the discomfort of wearing clothing all day, with low level chaotic sensations on the skin all of the time. Loud rhythmic music is like a weighted blanket – there is only one sensation to focus on, consistent and predictable.

I feel fortunate to have found tools, like headphones and earplugs, to help me manage noise from day to day. There are still plenty of places that are just never going to be comfortable for me, like busy bars. This gives me a lot of empathy for those who have more trouble with sensory integration than I do. Hopefully my experience will help allistic readers better understand sensory chaos, and think about how to create spaces that are a little less stressful for people like me who need to be in them.

Chaos and Volume: My Autistic Ears

10 thoughts on “Chaos and Volume: My Autistic Ears

  1. 1

    Interesting read! I can relate to some of this, particularly your feelings toward being in loud bar-like bars (Though for me it’s not so much actually physically debilitating as just profoundly irritating). It’s good to have an explanation as to why some brains don’t like certain environments. Of course the smoke doesn’t help either I guess.

    On the subject of chaos and music, I’m curious as to our various brains’ tolerance for different varieties of chaos. For instance, the highly structured yet bewilderingly non-hierarchical (that is, lacking a tonal center) mechanics of twelve-tone serialism? Or the orchestral music of Charles Ives, which often by design sounds like multiple discrete pieces being played at the same time? Do these kinds of perceived chaos affect you in similar ways as, say, the laundromat, or does the intention under the hood shine through and make them more palatable? And if you record a few minutes of sounds of the laundromat and listen back to it 100 times, is there a point at which it becomes digestible through familiarity, or will it always remain a foreign country?

    Where is the boundary between chaos and beauty, and is the entirety of art history the story of our effort to find it?

    1. 1.1

      Thanks for your comment! Luckily there’s no smoking in bars here in IL, or WI where I came from, so it’s no longer a problem. Back when they did allow smoking I couldn’t go to bars at all, as I am asthmatic unfortunately.

      Your knowledge of music FAR surpasses mine. In fact, my taste in music has been jokingly referred to (mostly by me) as “Welp, I like Barenaked Ladies.” (followed by a blank stare)

      Seriously though, I have always tended towards music that many would call exceedingly simple. I like show tunes, some pop music, and folk tunes. Hearing the same thing enough times helps, because then it becomes familiar and no longer chaos. Seriously complex music is utterly baffling to me – my brain just never makes sense of it.

      At reasonable volumes complex music, even with great intentionality, doesn’t feel like a laundromat. It feels like how I expect many musicians would feel when sat down in a classroom half way through the semester of a graduate level biochemistry class, or a high level accounting course. I KNOW it’s not nonsense, but that doesn’t help it make any more sense.

      I think one of the reasons autistic people like to do/hear/say the same things over and over is that repetition makes them no longer chaotic. If you play for me something by Ives I expect it would be annoying and difficult chaos at first, maybe the first dozen or so times. Then it would start to be bearable, then comfortable, then enjoyable. Around the time an allistic person would say “Oh my god, stop playing the same damned thing over and over again!” and pulling their hair out is around the time I’d say “Hey, I like this song!” It ceases to become chaos through repetition.

    2. 1.2

      Oh, and as for your last question – I am absolutely certain that what I perceive as chaos can be beautiful to someone else. One of the best things about humanity is that our brains work differently, we see different things in different lights, and our definitions of beauty, chaos, and even ugliness differ so dramatically. I find it’s much easier to see beauty when I spend a lot of time with it, which I actually don’t think is that different from most people, but it may take me more time to change chaos to beauty.

      I don’t expect to find beauty in a laundromat ever, though. I am pretty familiar already, and that familiarity is just breeding contempt.

      1. That all makes sense to me. I find that complexity is not necessarily correlated with the number of listens it takes me to appreciate a new piece of music; expectation is far more relevant. I guess it’s finding the balance between sounds that fulfill expectations and sounds that defy them that’s the key. For this reason I VERY rarely enjoy live music that I’m not already familiar with, and it will probably take me as many listens to enjoy, say, a Katy Perry song as it will a given piece of “serious” music.

  2. 2

    You pretty much nailed it. It’s not the volume (or other physical quality) of the sound (or other sensory input), it’s the sheer fucking amount of sensory input that “blows the fuses” (so to speak).

  3. A

    I have to admit that I was surprised to read that other people would be surprised by this! I’ve more than once found myself having to blast Death Metal through my earplugs to drown out the utterly overwhelming chaos of people all talking at the same time. Is this something neurotypical people would not do? 🙂

    1. 3.1

      Well, for me metal tends to be the most chaotic thing ever – most metal music is guaranteed to leave me nearly in tears in desperation to get away. Sorry! You enjoy your metal, I’ll enjoy my Barenaked Ladies I guess?

      But as to your question – Yeah, my experience is that many neurotypical people, especially allistic people, tend to be pretty comfortable in spaces full of people talking (and YELLING) and rarely seem to be bothered by it. There is definitely a point at which neurotypical folks get annoyed, but it is FAR beyond the point at which I can no longer deal.

      In fact, my sense (from my job mainly) is that allistic people think they’re not actually having fun unless they are being obnoxiously loud.

  4. 4

    Benny, I have studied music academically most of my life and I can tell you with some authority that Barenaked Ladies are pretty great. You’ve nothing to feel embarrassed about. Have you heard their kids’ record? Genuinely brilliant.

    1. 4.1

      I definitely have! It’s not so much that I’m embarrassed about it as that I’m aware my taste is pretty limited and I have been told my playlist gets pretty repetitive if anyone else has to listen to it.

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