“I hate the sound of this [INSERT SOUND HERE].”
Car alarm. Squeaky floorboard. The sound of my downstairs neighbor trying to teach his parrot to talk at 3AM. Guess what Kevin, that majestic bird will not start speaking in full sentences just because you’re yelling them at him louder. Also that thing must hate having to hear you practice tap dancing all day. It sounds like someone keeps throwing a bunch of silverware down the stairs over and over again.
Kevin is the worst.
Anyway, yeah, there are a lot of sounds I find unpleasant. But they don’t ruin my day, and I eventually learn to block it out.
But what if I couldn’t? What if hearing something was so unbearable it would actually cause me physical pain? Many people living with autism have to endure this exact issue.
Temple Grandin, perhaps one of the most eminent voices of autism today, once discussed the difficulties of trying to navigate the world when you harbor a hypersensitivity to noise, a common trait seen in autistic individuals.
In her piece “Inside a View with Autism,” she goes on to describe how “sudden loud noises hurt [her] ears like a dentist’s drill hitting a nerve.”
“My hearing is like having a hearing aid with the volume control stuck on “super loud.” It is like an open microphone that picks up everything. I have two choices: turn the mike on and get deluged with sound, or shut it off… I am unable to talk on the phone in a noisy office or airport. Everybody else can use the phones in a noisy environment, but I can’t. If I try to screen out the background noise, I also screen out the phone.”
Suddenly, enduring Kevin’s noises as a sloppy tap-dancing-parrot-preacher doesn’t seem like the worst thing in the world.
Just like everyone, those on the spectrum of autism are impacted by different stimuli in different ways. Minimizing the negative aspects of aural sensitivity for people with autism has many different approaches, and the best solution depends on the individual. My cousin Justin Canha, is autistic, and I would shadow him at summer camps as a teenager, sometimes at ones where there were other autistic kids. There was no fool-proof, one-size-fits-all solution to when a child was negatively reacting to a sound. Some needed a few minutes to calm down, some just needed to move on to the next thing, and one kid always had Dunkaroos for lunch even though she’s way older than their target demographic…just kidding on that last one…That was me.
Today, Justin is living the dream plenty of people spend their whole lives trying to achieve – he is a well-respected, recognized artist. He has been on the front page of the New York Times. He even met the creator of The Simpsons who drew him as a Simpson! Nowadays, part of his time is spent teaching kids how to draw their favorite cartoon characters, and these classes are the perfect opportunity not only for Justin to give back to his local community but also for children to gain exposure to the talents of a person who could easily be written off as “different.” Most of these sessions are held in libraries, which is not uncommon for education-oriented activities for younger people. I used to think that it’s a happy coincidence libraries also happen to be one of Justin’s favorite places to spend time, but up until working at an architectural acoustics firm, I never really asked why he felt so connected to these places.
One of Justin’s pieces from a series focusing on carnivorous plants and rainforest life.
When you walk into a library, you are walking into an area that’s known for one rule: keep it down (“it” meaning your voice, your headphones, or even your cell phone). And for someone with autism, a place like this could easily be seen as a haven from impossible-to-ignore noise. To touch on the experiences of Temple Grandin again:
“I can shut down my hearing and withdraw from most noise, but certain frequencies cannot be shut out. It is impossible for an autistic child to concentrate in a classroom if he is bombarded with noises that blast through his brain like a jet engine. High, shrill noises were the worst. A low rumble has no effect, but an exploding firecracker hurts my ears.”
The thought of Justin having to endure sounds that are literally painful to him hurts my heart. He has so much to offer the world, and throughout his life institutions offering smart solutions to mechanical system noise and vibration control, proper sound isolation, and acoustical treatments provided a safe harbor for him to calm down, collect himself, and learn.
One of Justin’s many, many notebooks he uses to practice his work. I am always stunned by the amount of detail!
One of my favorites.
(…and another one of my favorites… I have a lot of favorites.)
If you would like to see and learn more about Justin’s work, feel free to explore these pages:
Okay, last one, I swear!