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.