The Sonic Bliss of Quintessential Autistic Gear: Noise Cancelling Headphones13 min read

When someone who has gone undi­ag­nosed most of their life real­izes that they’re autistic, there’s a period of unpacking every per­cep­tion and way of existing to realize that– no, in fact, most people don’t expe­ri­ence [ insert almost any­thing here ] the same way you do.

Or, maybe they do expe­ri­ence some­thing the same way, but much less intensely. One very glaring example is when late-diagnosed musi­cian Johnny Profane real­ized that he has to actu­ally rewind and relive expe­ri­ences to remember them. It was while reading Johnny’s article that I real­ized I was the same way— and all the emo­tional and cog­ni­tive resources con­sumed by memory weren’t so bru­tally expended by most people recalling an event.

I have these kinds of epipha­nies daily, but the most pow­erful to date was the moment I put on the right noise-cancelling head­phones.

Autistic Sensory Experiences

I did a lot of reading before deciding on the right head­phones, but the thing that most sold me was some autistic audio­philes on a forum talking about Sennheisers. I read every descrip­tion of every head­phone from every rec­om­mended brand from every blog I could find, then ulti­mately chose to buy Sennheiser head­phones that promised “spa­tial” sound.

Most people wouldn’t empathize with why “spa­tial” is so impor­tant to me. Like many autis­tics, I have lat­er­al­iza­tion issues in the brain– that is, there is atyp­ical con­nec­tivity between the right and left hemi­spheres. I’m also dyslexic and cross-dominant. This essen­tially means that grem­lins wired my brain as a prac­tical joke, and it’s almost like the left and right sides of my body are in a con­stant battle to coor­di­nate, well, every­thing. Even sound.

I have a hard time under­standing if some­thing I’ve heard came from my right or left. Hell, I have a hard time under­standing left and right, period. I also can’t dis­crim­i­nate how far away a sound is, and I can’t filter back­ground noise.

What’s more, my vestibular system– the system respon­sible for bal­ance– is so under-responsive that it’s the equiv­a­lent of being blind or deaf; there­fore, my sense of bal­ance is con­tin­gent on my vision and my hearing. If every­thing is moving too fast, if there are too many sounds, I just become so dis­lodged from bal­ance and phys­ical space that it’s dizzying enough to actu­ally cause me to faint. I have to sit down a lot, espe­cially in loud and busy public places.

Then, there’s the synes­thesia. Synesthesia hap­pens when someone expe­ri­ences more than one sense at a time with sen­sory input. I have mul­tiple types of synes­thesia. I hear in color and some­times– in the best times– I see these glo­rious grids with bursting colors that look like space nebula or land­scapes, ocean waves crashing against cliff sides or forests of ancient cedar trees.

I also feel move­ment with the right sounds, like the drop after cresting the apex of a roller coaster. It’s amazing when it hap­pens, and I pursue those moments like an adren­a­line junkie.

Sometimes, there are golden sparks. The unadul­ter­ated joy that I expe­ri­ence during these punc­tu­ated flashes make the exis­ten­tial sen­sory suf­fering of everyday life as an autistic worth it. I wouldn’t change my sen­sory pro­file if given the option, and I can thank Sennheiser for that.

A Spiritual Experience

When my Sennheiser head­phones arrived, I waited until I was alone. This was the quin­tes­sen­tial gear for autistic people, and I wanted to have space to close my eyes and not need to hear any­thing else. I decided to start with an orches­tral recording of a Pink Floyd song which had caused a pretty strong synes­thetic response for me before.

So, with my house empty and my eyes closed, I pressed play.

At first, it was so shocking that I had a hard time not looking behind me. In fact, I did. I jumped up out of my chair and scanned the space behind me. And beside me. I ducked.

I had never heard with such clarity, and sound had never made such sense before. It never seemed to come from direc­tions. Sound had just existed as this cloudy morass of analog radio waves, and I had always existed as a befud­dled antenna unable to tell the source of the sig­nals I received. Now, it seemed as if I were lying in the middle of the Slovenian Philharmonic, and I could tell from where the sounds were coming, could parse out every indi­vidual instru­ment and every note in layers.

About sixty sec­onds into the song, the music crescen­doed, and all of the ten­sion left my body. All of it. There was nothing left to even sup­port my own body, and I col­lapsed to the floor in a crum­pled heap. I wept through quaking sobs and uncon­trol­lable laughter. Every pore on my limbs and torso turned itself inside out and every hair stood up as if I’d become elec­tri­fied by the magic of what I was expe­ri­encing.

It was the first time in 38 years of living that I felt no stress at all.

Autistic people have a rela­tion­ship with lan­guage and sound that is unique, and nov­elist Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf cap­tures best what hap­pened to me, exactly, as if I wrote it myself. There’s no fic­tion in this pas­sage:

After two or three notes of the piano the door was opened of a sudden to the other world. I sped through heaven and saw God at work. I suf­fered holy pains. I dropped all my defences and was afraid of nothing in the world. I accepted all things and to all things I gave up my heart. It did not last very long, a quarter of an hour per­haps; but it returned to me in a dream at night, and since, through all the barren days, I caught a glimpse of it now and then. Sometimes for a minute or two I saw it clearly, threading my life like a divine and golden track. But nearly always it was blurred in dirt and dust. Then again it gleamed out in golden sparks as though never to be lost again and yet was soon quite lost once more.

And, from Herman Melville (author of Moby Dick), in his novel, Pierre: Or the Ambiguities:

Instantly the room was pop­u­lous with sounds of melo­di­ous­ness, and mourn­ful­ness, and won­der­ful­ness; the room swarmed with the unin­tel­li­gible but deli­cious sounds. The sounds seemed waltzing in the room; the sounds hung pen­du­lous like glit­tering ici­cles from the cor­ners of the room; and fell upon him with a ringing sil­very­ness; and were drawn up again to the ceiling, and hung pen­du­lous again, and dropt down upon him again with the ringing sil­very­ness. Fire-flies seemed buzzing in the sounds; summer-lightnings seemed vividly yet softly audible in the sounds.

I’m not a reli­gious person, but this was the spir­i­tual and trans­for­ma­tive mag­netism of synes­thesia and sound– when the right for­mula, like divine math­e­mat­ical engi­neering, brought my senses into align­ment.

I’d tried on high-end (to me, though they were really mid-range) head­phones before, but some­thing was dif­ferent with the Sennheisers. The dis­tinc­tion was in the way the sound was dis­trib­uted left-to-right, and with the timing and res­o­nant con­tours, that fleshed out this full-bodied spa­tial sound­scape for me.

It might have been the first time in my life that breathing was ever easy, and I hadn’t even real­ized how hard it was until then. After the ini­tial shock and emo­tional reac­tion dis­solved over a few days of manic rev­elry, it became clear how much easier they made my life. I could nav­i­gate the world without dizzi­ness because sound wasn’t so dis­ori­enting. They empow­ered me to be more active.

I wasn’t con­stantly star­tled by every sound no one else noticed, and somehow it helped me to better coor­di­nate the left and right sides of my body. Again, this is only some­thing I’ve expe­ri­enced with Sennheiser, which led me to reach out to their engi­neering depart­ment (more on that shortly).

I wasn’t alone.

The Autistic Community Responds

Using the hashtag #AskingAutistics, I took to Twitter and Facebook to ask autistic people about their expe­ri­ences the first time they tried on a good set of noise-cancelling head­phones. Here are some of their responses (some are para­phrased or edited for clarity):

  • It felt like I was turning the world’s volume down to a more tol­er­able level… Glorious.
  • I cried for an hour! The relief was more pro­found than I could have imag­ined.
  • Astonishment. I had NO idea I was strug­gling with noise until the noise was gone. I never, ever go to public places without them now. I have SO many more spoons without having to fight to focus.

  • It set me free. I am able to par­tic­i­pate in a lot more social events typ­ical for people my age (pubs, clubs, and polit­ical protests).
  • Oh my G‑d, it was mag­ical. They’re like sun­glasses for your ears!!! I never leave the house without mine now.
  • I cried. It finally gave me some power over my sur­round­ings.
  • The very first time? I was in Curry’s and tried a pair. I felt so emo­tional. It was like sucking all of the noise out of my head and sending it away. It was absolute bliss, and I had to buy them. I didn’t have to process all of the noise for the first time ever. I won­dered if that’s how NT’s felt. I could con­cen­trate and hear myself think.

I actu­ally cried in sol­i­darity when I read that one: I won­dered if that’s how NT’s (neu­rotyp­i­cals) felt. I could relate hard to all of these, but that is the beauty of dis­ability accom­mo­da­tions: being able to feel a peace that you didn’t know was even pos­sible with the right sup­ports.

  • It’s like taking a deep breath after coming up for air when swim­ming. Massive quality of life improve­ment.
  • I’d used cheaper ones before (that didn’t really cancel any­thing, just phys­i­cally blocked some sounds), so the first time I wore properly-noise can­celing head­phones, it was like a weight off my shoul­ders. I could still hear to an extent, but the per­sis­tent machine noise was so much less intru­sive. Being able to wear these in public also makes a huge dif­fer­ence on days I’m tee­tering in the edge of over­stim­u­la­tion.
  • It was like the world finally stopped crushing me. Ambient noise causes me a lot of anx­iety and fatigue, so just feeling like every­thing was finally clear was almost mag­ical. Definitely worth the $400 for head­phones + longterm ser­vice plan for when I inevitably break them.
  • Blessed, blessed *silence*. I cried because I didn’t realise how quiet life was with actual noise-filtering ability.
  • My whole body finally relaxed, and I dropped like a sack of pota­toes lmao

As you’ve read, I def­i­nitely relate.

  • Stunning! All other noise and demands dis­ap­peared. There was only the music. Each instru­ment making its own sense yet seam­lessly together, like a beau­tiful ribbon of sound. “Autistic bliss.” I was rocking so fast.
  • Total, unadul­ter­ated peace. Close my eyes too, and it’s the closest I can get to a sen­sory depri­va­tion tank expe­ri­ence. The only way to get the onslaught of the world to stop for a few moments.
  • Heaven. I wear them round the house switched on but some­times without any­thing playing! Usually an audio­book though. Compete relaxing iso­la­tion. I love mine.
  • I’ve learned a lot about my own sen­si­tiv­i­ties, which noise has always been a big one. When I put on a good pair of head­phones at work, I felt my shoul­ders release so much ten­sion and my entire body relax. It was like my own little oasis in a sea of chaos. I wish I could wear them to work every day.

  • I was able to take a deep breath and relax. It helped me be able to handle the addi­tional visual stimuli and fully process my sur­round­ings and took me out of fight or flight response.
  • It was like someone had slowed my brain. I was able to think about what I WANTED to think about, not what I had to think about. It is like standing in the middle of a forest but amongst chaos.
  • The 1st time I used them was to watch Mozart in the Jungle and when the orchestra played I wept! The inter­min­gling of all the dif­ferent instru­ments and people was unreal!
  • I was stunned that I had lived my whole life not knowing I heard dif­fer­ently than others. I never knew such com­fort. (Diagnosed at 35)
  • Peace. At last!!!
  • The feeling was a kind of bliss I didn’t know pos­sible. the sound was inside my head instead of having to be fought for. I could stop being con­stantly reminded there ever had been an out­side world, and just be me alone with the sound.
    yeah, bliss.

Sennheiser

Something spe­cific about the tech­nology in Sennheiser head­phones really did some­thing to accom­mo­date my unique sen­sory pro­file, and that includes the vestibular issues and the left-right brain coor­di­na­tion. It was def­i­nitely one of the top three most defin­i­tive moments of my life.

So, I reached out to them and was able to score an inter­view with a port­folio man­ager, Dr. Christian Ern, who has been working at Sennheiser since 2001. The pod­cast should be out shortly, but for this article, I’ll break down some of the high­lights of that con­ver­sa­tion.

Please note that this isn’t a sneaky com­mer­cial or product place­ment. I have no affil­iate links or pro­fes­sional con­nec­tion with Sennheiser. My expe­ri­ence was so pro­foundly life-changing, I feel that the sig­nif­i­cance bor­ders on being a human rights issue. With an accom­mo­da­tion this vital, the right prod­ucts are essen­tial to quality of life.

Dr. Ern was warmly delightful, humble, knowl­edge­able, and intu­itive. It’s always a rare breath of fresh air for me when I can talk to someone who knows I’m autistic, acknowl­edge that my expe­ri­ence is dif­ferent, and be authen­ti­cally inter­ested in exactly what that means. I got the impres­sion that he very much cared about how he might be pos­i­tively con­tributing to the autistic expe­ri­ence.

Our con­ver­sa­tion was much less about the tech specs of equip­ment and much more about power of sound and how our own emo­tional and nos­talgic con­nec­tions were given dimen­sion and brought to new life with the help of tech­nology that he helped to engi­neer.

He spoke of a song that served as a sound­track to many of his fondest family mem­o­ries, one he’d lis­tened to since his youth (“Spiral” by The Crusaders)— and with Sennheiser head­phones he helped to engi­neer, he was able to hear an instru­ment in the song he’d never heard before. Another anec­dote he shared was how he had the priv­i­lege to wit­ness pro­fes­sional musi­cians listen to their own music through Sennheiser head­phones and cry because the sound was given such pow­erful clarity by the tech­nology.

Of course, Dr. Ern wasn’t able to tell me industry secrets about what to me is mag­ical engi­neering. He did empha­size that head­phones are very per­sonal to the indi­vidual, and that even the shape of an individual’s ear impacts how they expe­ri­ence sound and how that sound inter­acts with a per­son’s unique sen­sory pro­file.

Naturally, some people will have dif­ferent sen­sory needs regarding the weight of head­phones and how they feel against the head, and also for volume, bass, reg­ister, and sharp­ness. He rec­om­mended that people try them on and test them, which can for­tu­nately be done at Best Buy. Of course, he readily admits he is biased in favor of the Sennheiser brand, but he noted that indi­vidual pref­er­ence accounts for a lot with head­phones.

They are pricey, but he did men­tion that a great way to buy quality head­phones is to snag a pair that is being phased out for a newer model as often the change is min­imal and may not even impact the sound at all. This is how I bought mine, and I was able to get them for nearly 70% off the list price.

Ern did state that he believes autistic people might really ben­efit from head­phones that have the hybrid ANC (active noise can­celling) tech­nology that adjusts to ambient sounds to pro­vide the optimal amount of noise sup­pres­sion.

Luckily, right now one pair that he specif­i­cally rec­om­mended, the Momentum 2, is being phased out for the ver­sion 3, and so they’re on sale from $499 to $199. You can get them from the Sennheiser web­site here, or from Amazon here (with Prime ship­ping avail­able). And hol­iday sales can be viewed here.

It was clear that Dr. Ern is very much invested in the joy and improve­ments the right audio tech can bring to peo­ple’s lives. For him, it’s a labor of love; that much was clear.

It’s my hope that this article will also inspire others to be more aware of the intense need of sen­sory reg­u­la­tion accom­mo­da­tions and how impor­tant they can be to autistic and oth­er­wise neu­ro­di­ver­gent people. Parents, edu­ca­tors, and employers may take heed that these can be as essen­tial to quality of life as pre­scrip­tion eye­glasses, asthma inhalers, and wheel­chairs, and that it’s okay if accom­mo­da­tions are “cool” and “in fashion.”

It’s no more spoiling someone or enabling them than con­tact lenses afford the near­sighted or hearing aids lend the hearing impaired. It’s empow­ering people to access a better quality of life given the skin they’re in, and that is always a sound thing to do.

 

11 Comments

  1. I have tin­nitus on one side, so even with my beloved Bose wired NC head­phones I don’t get absolute silence, which is what I really crave. But I love them all the same and get such peace wearing them since my NT hus­band plays music all the time at home. And for lis­tening to pod­casts, books or MP3 files, I find I have better cog­ni­tive ability when back­ground sound is wiped out. I’m so much less dis­tracted by noise that I can truly focus on what­ever I’m trying to learn. They’re expen­sive, so for those who can’t afford them I think they ought to be cov­ered under med­ical insur­ance for anyone diag­nosed with ASD or ADHD.

    1. Author

      I agree com­pletely!

  2. I’ve never tried noise-canceling head­phones for the very simple fact that I’m afraid I’ll become addicted to them and never want to take them off. I, too, can’t tell where sound is coming from, but I never knew why. I wonder what my expe­ri­ence would be, but, alas, I do not have the money for such blissful things. I’m glad they’re helping you, though!

    1. Author

      Please let me know how they worked for you!

      1. I will try to remember, but it will be some time as i cur­rently have no money! xD

  3. When I read ‘noise can­celling’ I did hope it was actu­ally noise can­celling, not just a masking sound 🙁
    But head­phoned would no good. I need noise can­celling most at night when mos­qui­toes, crickets, par­ties in the next suburb (espe­cially when the drummer can’t keep a god rhythm), hoons hooning on the main road, etc, keep me awake

  4. Funny thing. There was a book I read a while ago — it was a real­istic fic­tion novel called Boot Camp, taking place at a “trou­bled teen” facility (you know, one of those abu­sive ones), and the pro­tag­o­nist, Garret, was strongly autistic-coded but the author didn’t seem to know he was autistic (the char­acter is a rich kid in the sort of rich family whose par­ents are likely to go out of their way to avoid diag­nosing their little dar­lings with autism). And wouldn’t you know it, the book refers to him using Sennheiser head­phones too. Funny that.

  5. I have also read about using musi­cian hearing aids. Anyone try that?

    Thank you for this post. I think they should be cov­ered by insur­ance too.

  6. Thanks to noise-canceling head­phones, I was able to go to Frozen 2 with my sister and actu­ally feel com­fort­able.

    That has never hap­pened to me before.

  7. Just a plug for the cheaper COWIN E7 Active Noise Cancelling Headphones. I don’t know if they’re good enough for all cases, but for me (an older adult crowded in a building with people who are too noisy) they’ve been a life­saver. The noise can­celing mostly just mutes the sounds of all the fans, which is nice. It’s the cans them­selves that give most of the muf­fling effect. But what I do with them is set them to blue­tooth and play a song that is the sound of rain, on repeat. So I’m falling asleep to the sound of rain instead of people arguing, TVs, etc. It’s a huge help. I get anx­iety from loud and unhappy people noises and this gets rid of most of it. I can hear the noise can­celing effect as a faint high pitched sound — don’t know if others can hear it, I can get a little queasy from it but I’m get­ting used to it. When I’m near a shut­down, I really need authentic quiet, and I still want to move to a better place, but these head­phones are saving me right now.

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