Squeaky Doors: On Sensory Issues

It is most peoples’ assumption that the worst part about being on the spectrum is the inability to effectively communicate with people, and yes, that can suck, but it has been my experience that the worst part of autism is the sensory issues.  There is nothing worse than wanting to enjoy the film at the cinema, but you can’t because the audio track hurts.  Nothing worse than wanting to be able to eat healthy foods so you’ll stay alive longer, but you can’t because they make you gag, or they smell so awful you can’t be in the same room with them.  Nothing worse than wanting to have fun on that day out, but not being able to because the sight, the sound, the smell, the proximity, of all the other humans bustling about, encroaching on your space with their noxious perfumes and shouting down their cellphones or at their screaming kids, is hell on earth for you.

That’s my life every day.

As I grew up and experienced the world, it became more and more apparent that it was built without my species in mind.  This point is epitomized by my library door.

On my college campus, as you might expect, there is a library, with four standard issue stainless-steel doors that permit entry and exit.  One of those doors however, needs lubricating, or replacing, or welding shut, or something, because every time it is opened, it emits an earth-shattering, nails-on-chalkboard squeal.  And nobody notices.  Nobody, that is, but me.  Day after day, I walk up to those doors, carefully avoiding the defective one, but always keeping an eye on it, because I know someone is going to approach and open it.  They do, and it squeaks, and sends horrible shockwaves down my spine, and they walk right through, as if hearing nothing.  They don’t notice the door because they are attuned to a much louder, busier world than I am.  What they do notice though, is my pain; they watch me as I cover my ears and push open the door with my elbows; I can feel them.

I was not designed for a world like theirs; the dampeners on my internal sensors were defective, or broken when they were installed.  There has been one upside to my damaged circuitry though: it has allowed me to develop an intuition for the sensory systems of others, that those around me do not have.  I know when my sister’s flute-playing is hurting the dog by the way he flicks his ears; whenever the cat follows me into the bathroom, I always let him out before I flush, because I know it’s worse for him than it is for me.  I feel empathy for infants in crowded, noisy places in a way I rarely feel for other people, because they are defenceless, and their parents are completely unaware of how comparatively sensitive the undeveloped sensory system can be.

So, the next time you see an aspie in a crowd, do not make your first thought, “How can I include him in the conversation?” make it, “How do I think he’s handling the sensory environment?”  Being NT, you have the benefit of being able to read his body language and differentiate loneliness from pain in a way that is hard for us; use it to your advantage, and make a new friend in the process.


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