Sound and Fury6 min read

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At some point, this will end. Nothing lasts for­ever. It will stop. It will.

Yesterday, I sat through an hour and a half of tor­ture. And I knew I had to write about it, even though there seemed no way to describe it that didn’t make me sound hys­ter­ical or crazy. So this is my attempt, for those on the spec­trum like me who have trouble explaining such things, and for neu­rotyp­i­cals who have trouble under­standing them.

It doesn’t happen as fre­quently as it did when I was a child, but every so often, a stim­ulus will over­whelm every single coping mech­a­nism I’ve so painstak­ingly taught myself over the last twenty-odd years. I was at a friend’s birthday party a couple week­ends ago and could not con­cen­trate on a con­ver­sa­tion because the smell of Doritos was so over­pow­ering. I lost all ability to focus and had to walk away.

Yesterday, I endured a wretched ordeal that trans­formed a chunk of my after­noon into a hell from which I couldn’t escape, yet another expe­ri­ence that under­scored that I am more than just your garden variety intro­vert.

And what was this hor­rific tor­ture?

A voice.

Certain sounds cause phys­ical pain to per­sons on the spec­trum. For me, vocal fry is one of those sounds. Whether it be my aware­ness of how it is pro­duced or the fre­quency of the sound waves them­selves (or both), I simply cannot listen to it for any length of time without wanting to crawl out of my body.

For the unini­ti­ated, vocal fry is the term for a spe­cific style of speaking. The vocal cords are stretched tightly at the lowest pitch the speaker can pro­duce to yield a thin, rough, atonal timbre. Experts have the­o­rized that women do this to sound more mas­cu­line and thus be taken more seri­ously by their male peers, despite the fact that both men and women have reported finding the sound rather unpleasant.

What I wouldn’t give for it to be merely unpleasant, rather than pro­ducing a sen­sa­tion sim­ilar to sand paper being rubbed on the back of my throat.

I was accom­pa­nying a class to a non­profit, and in fact, I’d been looking for­ward to the field trip. But once the pre­sen­ta­tion began, the flat, harsh tone of the woman speaking was so dis­tracting I couldn’t con­cen­trate on what she was saying. Which was upset­ting, because I was very inter­ested in what she was saying; one of the rea­sons I’d accepted the teaching assis­tant posi­tion for this course was to work with the very people whose orga­ni­za­tion we were vis­iting.

I wanted so des­per­ately to be able to simply absorb the infor­ma­tion. I tried to take notes, but they were choppy, with large gaps; I kept losing the thread of the dis­cus­sion. I couldn’t ignore the sound; I might as well have been a sit­ting next to a jack­hammer.

Today, my jaw is sore from having been clenched for ninety-plus min­utes. My neck and shoul­ders ache from the rigid pos­ture I froze in as my body tried to pro­tect itself. It felt as though my skin was being peeled off, my whole body a scab debrided, raw flesh exposed to the air.

Finally, it was another wom­an’s turn to speak–and she employed the exact same vocal effect. In fact, all five women in the depart­ment used it, per­haps sub­con­sciously rein­forcing the choice among them­selves. Every one of their voices was like acid poured in my ears. One was so grav­elly that my verbal decoding failed utterly; I have no idea what her posi­tion entailed or why she was even there.

About halfway through, I despaired of being of any assis­tance to the stu­dents. I couldn’t get away from the pain the noise was causing me. I felt trapped and pow­er­less. I thought about excusing myself, but was wor­ried it would set a bad example. Even though both the stu­dents and pro­fes­sors know I have Asperger’s, it seemed impos­sible to explain why I needed to leave.

Yesterday was a suc­cess, I sup­pose, since I stuck out the entire pre­sen­ta­tion, but it left me trau­ma­tized and exhausted, and reminded me that there is this part of me that will never be fully man­aged.

Lest I forget, my autism can still inca­pac­i­tate me without warning. What if I were a speaker on a round­table sit­ting next to that voice? On a call with an impor­tant client? Discussing an ill­ness with a physi­cian? What would I have done?

For people with an ASD, it takes a cer­tain amount of energy to focus on the right com­po­nents of our sur­round­ings, or rather, to not focus on the ones we’re not sup­posed to pay atten­tion to. I was fre­quently accused of not paying atten­tion as a child, though I was cer­tainly paying atten­tion to some­thing, albeit heaven knows what. At least as an adult, I know what I’m sup­posed to lock onto, and can exert myself to main­tain that focus where nec­es­sary. Usually.

From time to time, like yes­terday after­noon, I fail spec­tac­u­larly. I react dis­pro­por­tion­ately to a cer­tain sound, sight, or smell, and the rest of the world is just gone. I’m stuck, my brain is screaming, every fiber of my being is beg­ging me to run away, and any­thing else I might want to be doing slips mad­den­ingly out of reach.

Sometimes, I like my Asperger’s. I like my pecu­liar way of looking at the world, the diver­gent paths my thoughts take, and the unique per­spec­tive I have on human inter­ac­tion. But some­times, like yes­terday, I would trade every last scrap of it to escape the cruel hijacking vis­ited on me by whichever way­ward neu­rons were acti­vated when that woman began to speak.

We’re hooking up with the orga­ni­za­tion again next month to tour another facility. I don’t know what to do. Maybe I won’t be as sen­si­tive that day? Sometimes second expo­sures are less dra­matic. Then again, some­times they’re expo­nen­tially worse.

And I can’t simply avoid all women who speak this way; I’m sure women in posi­tions of power every­where uti­lize the tech­nique, else why would we have a word for it or a body of research sur­rounding it? How am I sup­posed to avoid an entire gen­er­a­tion of women? Most prob­ably don’t even know they’re doing it. I could record it and play it back to them and they would wonder what I was making such a fuss about.

I just wrote a post about how intro­verts don’t need spe­cial treat­ment; I still don’t believe they do. But people on the spec­trum? My hard line softens a bit on this one. Most of time I favor a suck-it-up men­tality, but every once in a while, my autism pins me to the wall, and I fer­vently wish I could file down the world’s edges.

Ear plugs, maybe? It’s not like I haven’t had to explain such eccen­tric­i­ties before. You don’t eat fruit? Are all your shoes too big? Why is there a bag of bubble wrap by the front seat of your car? I’m sure I could come up with some excuse, at least for the tour. But it’s not exactly a long term solu­tion; I can’t wear them every­where. Not to men­tion that the feeling of ear plugs in my ears can only be with­stood for so long.

This is my life. These are the kinds of things I have to deal with while other people are going about their daily busi­ness. I wish I could do what they take for granted, just show up wher­ever and do what­ever needed to be done without wor­rying that one of the flu­o­res­cent bulbs might start flick­ering and send me into a tail­spin.

I wish the act of leaving my home wasn’t fraught with uncer­tainty about what I might be exposed to. I wish I didn’t always need to know where the emer­gency exits were.

Would I still be me without the autism? When I read arti­cles about poten­tial treat­ments I wonder if I wouldn’t undergo one even if I could, for fear it might change an essen­tial part of me. But how essen­tial is it? Doesn’t it do more harm than good, more often than not? Wouldn’t I be better off without it?

Some days I think I just might be.

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