Let’s say that one day you are wandering aimlessly in whatever mall is nearest to you. Somewhere in that store you encounter me. What would that be like?
I’d most likely be in my wheel-chair. Malls hurt to walk in. I’m average looking, so nothing extraordinary in that. Most likely I’d either be humming (sometimes kind of loud) or talking to myself. The humming would be repetitive (about two bars over and over again). If I was talking, I’d be going through what I needed to get and where I needed to go in order to buy that object. Sometimes you would even hear me commenting on the mall itself. I might even be singing that list. I would try to keep things quiet, but gauging how loud I am can be difficult. All of a sudden I might laugh.
Why on earth do I do this? As I have read up on autism/aspergers (didn’t even know there was a name for me until a couple of years ago) I have come to realize that my singing/humming/talking have to do with concentration, sensation and hearing.
I am easily distracted. Even with a note detailing what I am supposed to get and where, I’ll often become fascinated by something and end up forgetting why I went to the store. I then have to remember that I have brought a note and look at it. Off I go again. Repeating to myself where and what I need to be and get helps me focus. I find it helpful to have a person with me or knowing ahead of time exactly which stores I will be visiting.
Repeating/singing/humming also satisfies my need to stim. Unfortunately for my surroundings noise is one of my most frequent stims. Using godawful rhymes, terrible melodies, weird sounds and repeating words feels really good. If I manage to remember to only hum while I am out, people tend to accept my behavior. That way I get to lower my level of stress and satisfy the physical pleasure that comes with stimming.
Sometimes, when I repeat/sing/hum I am trying to distract myself from all the noise around me. The world is really loud when filtering out sounds is not an option. My hearing is perfectly average. As I am soon to hit my half-century mark, I imagine I will gradually be hearing less and less of what goes on around me. But for now, the world is noisy. But if my hearing is average, how on earth could noise be a problem. Well, it has to do with the filtering thing.
First, let me describe background noises. Before outside sounds enter my head, my brain deals with a sound that is always there. It is not tinnitus (I have an occasional visit from that fiend, so I know what tinnitus is like). For one thing my background noise is located in a different area of the inside of my head – really close to my skull. You didn’t know that, did you? There are areas where sounds are felt in the brain and on the body. Or maybe you did. That is my background noise.
Then the outside ones take residence inside my body. I hear every single noise I am able to hear all of the time, unless I am able to drown them with my own sounds. These noises make it difficult for me to focus on the people I am talking with. All of a sudden a new and fascinating sound appears and off my attention goes. The accumulation of noise (both fascinating and not) is why I’ll most likely ask you to repeat whatever it is you said (maybe several times). I realize this may be irritating for you, but I am unable to do anything about it.
Sometimes the accumulation of noise over a period of time becomes too much and my brain either dissociates or chooses another form of melt-down. I generally manage to leave before things get that far, but if not, having another person nearby who knows I am in some kind of trouble is a good thing.
This sensitivity to sound also has one incredible benefit. Well-played music can make for an intense experience. Certain guitar-riffs and saxophone combinations slam into my body in the best way possible. If we are talking at that time, I guarantee you will lose my ability to focus completely on you.
Disclaimer: this is my experience with sounds/noise. Other aspergers or autists may have very different experiences.