08 September, 2010

sound values

I wanted to write about my sensory problems because the way I experience them is pretty different from the conventional characterization (which I understand as: "people with sensory problems react to sensory information as if it's louder/brighter/harder, or quieter/duller/softer, than it actually is"). My sensory problems resemble my synesthesia, or what I somewhat inaccurately call my synesthesia, since it's not as simple as sound=color. For me most sounds are gray and white, or sometimes yellow and brown, and the color isn't as striking as shade, patterns, and texture. The image of the sound isn't something I literally see; I just know what it is.

My negative reactions to sound are caused by the same thing--multiple values. It's not just that sounds are loud, but that they're scary or embarrassing. This means that I don't necessary realize my feelings are about sound. When I was little (just kidding, always), I was scared of flushing the toilet, which in retrospect I understand was about the loud noise, but at the time I just had a vague idea that toilets were scary.

I recently realized that, between the ages of ten and about sixteen, I could probably have been diagnosed with OCD. When I was in a place that had a loud noise (an irregular noise that looks like gravel, like a crowd of people talking or pop music, not a solid noise like a very loud bell) and where I was fully in motion, I could easily get into a state where I was forced to force myself (FTFM) to think about the following things:

1. being caught lying, plagiarizing, or being insincere--for example, once I kept thinking about sending White Stripes lyrics to my friend who liked the White Stripes, and claiming that I had written them though he was bound to recognize where they were from. The White Stripes were actually a whole area of obsession for me when I was about fourteen. I didn't listen to them much--too emotionally taxing--but I associated them with this friend, who I had such a crush on I didn't exactly want to be around him, ever, so I had that same kind of crush on Meg White and would find myself FTFM to think about her, which brings me to

2. having sex with people, having a crush on them, or dating them. I should mention that this wasn't the same as having sincere fantasies, like you would have anywhere. The specific sex- and romance-related thoughts I had in loud places where I was moving often weren't even about people I was attracted to. See, I had this vague feeling that when I was in loud environments and was standing up and moving, other people could read my thoughts. I wasn't even thinking about any particular person's reaction to reading, but just generally becoming so consumed by the possibility that someone could read my thoughts that I would find myself compulsively thinking any thoughts that would be embarrassing. I would think about having sex with or dating elderly teachers, or characters from the Harry Potter books (I wouldn't think about a fandom that was more obscure, because the average person might not realize my thought was about a fictional character, and therefore wouldn't know my thought was embarrassing). Since I also thought I was super unattractive when this stuff was at its peak (when I was thirteen and fourteen), I could also embarrass myself just by mentally referring to any guy I knew as "my boyfriend," since I felt I didn't have the right to have a boyfriend and it was horrifying to even project that onto any guy.

When I was in seventh grade, my parents made me take tae kwon do lessons. My lesson always started with "conditioning," which meant that I had to run in place, holding weights, while my teacher played loud pop music on the radio. This was probably the most terrible thing that happened to me all week; it was even worse than walking through the loud crowded halls of my school, because at school I could make things slightly less awful by touching walls or briefly freezing in place or sticking out my arms stiffly, and I could shorten my journey through the halls by walking quicker. Quite a lot of my seventh-grade energy was devoted to memorizing or writing poems that were very rhythmic so I could recite them in my head when I was doing conditioning and distract myself from the thoughts. Even this didn't make the experience painless, just a little more bearable.

Although I guess I didn't think other people experienced these compulsive thoughts, I was so used to them that it didn't occur to me to ever tell other people about them. I don't know if I thought that conditioning was supposed to be as horrible as it was--I realized about a month ago, when I started writing this post, that maybe if I had explained to anyone how I felt about it, they wouldn't have made me do conditioning or at least would have turned off the music.

Even though sound and motion, or just loud sound, still makes me feel embarrassed, I don't have that much compulsion going on anymore. Which I think is normal--I know that for people with Tourette Syndrome, their symptoms are worst in their early teens and then often fade away. However, I do want to explain this other emotional thing that seems to be tied into all the noise and movement and compulsion stuff.

I don't like being around people I really like. I don't like hearing their voices, seeing them or having them see me, or having physical contact with them. If I have always had to see and hear the person, of course I am inured to it, but the idea of meeting an Internet friend, someone I haven't seen in a long time, or a celebrity is completely unbearable if I like the person very much. I remember once, when I was fifteen, physically running away from my friend who was trying to introduce me to her dad, a children's book writer of whom I had been extremely fond all my life. The idea of entering a contest to meet your favorite actor or musician is the weirdest thing I have ever heard. Why would you want to torture yourself that way?

It's different with Internet or long-distance friends in that there is so much more of a benefit to actually meeting them and getting used to their presence, so you can hang out more in the future. So my solution is just to try to train myself by doing more and more upsetting things, like looking at pictures of the person and talking to them on the phone, and then refraining from looking at the person or touching them when I first meet them. When I was trying to explain to an Internet friend why I wanted to meet him somewhere where I could sit down on the ground, I linked him to this MOM-NOS post, which describes a young ASD boy who gets to meet his favorite country singer. Despite loving the singer, the boy initially refuses to go meet him, and responds flatly and refuses to look at him until he gets used to the singer's physical presence. This really struck a chord with me and is really one of the only examples I have seen of a person like me who just has fundamentally different/crossed values. Really good things are just naturally somewhat painful for me.


  1. You know, I have the same kind of reaction when I meet someone I admire or an old friend--an urge to get the hell away from them. I never really thought of it as an ASD thing, but then I don't really know much about ASD.

    I realize this wasn't like a main point of your post, but I think it really sucks that your parents made you take taekwondo lessons. I take taekwondo by my own choice, and I enjoy it, but I would probably hate it if I were forced to do it.

  2. I definitely have compulsive thought patterns.

    I'm curious about you having having a hard time being around people you really like though: how do you hang out with your friends? Or do you get used to it if you do it often enough? Is it just overwhelming emotionally?

  3. Oh sorry, my question was dumb, since you did say if you always had to see and hear them then you got used to it. *facepalm*

  4. Hah, one of the few times I see someone else saying this: being bothered by specific kinds of (loud) noises and as a child turning that into fear of the sound and then into fear of the object making it.
    I was also afraid of the toilet and especially flushing it. I'm still bothered by the sound but got rid of the fear. I also can't take the sound of the washing machine when it's going fastest. When I was little I had a hard time going near it even when it was off, and I used to run past it at full speed when I had to pass that area of the house.

    Your post also reminds me of that I can't quite wrap my mind around the fact that people can't hear me if they are far away and I don't raise my voice, when we are clearly in each other's line of sight. I mean I know how it technically all sticks together, but that doesn't change anything.

  5. See, I had this vague feeling that when I was in loud environments and was standing up and moving, other people could read my thoughts.

    Interesting. I never noticed if this was more common in loud environments for me but I do remember having a weird similar thing when I was younger, where I had this sense that my *parents* (and sometimes other people) could read my thoughts. But only if I thought "too much" or "too intensely" about certain things. It's really hard to explain this, though, because it was NOT like I was explicitly imagining that telepathy existed. It was more like...for a long time I wasn't sure where the boundary between "my brain" and "outside world" was. Also since I didn't understand much about communication at all for a long time growing up, part of all this came from the fact that I didn't quite get how ideas were transmitted between humans in the first place.

    Because speech didn't always have that much meaning, and sometimes it seemed like people knew what each other were thinking or planning even when no speech was exchanged. Plus, sometimes my parents WOULD say things like "oh you're about to do X!" and they'd be right and I didn't know how they knew that -- of course later I realized they just knew me from, you know, me being their kid and living with them, but that wasn't obvious to me AS a kid.

    OK sorry if that was tangential but your post (at least the bit of it I quoted) reminded me of that, and it's not something I mention often or find a place where it seems worth mentioning. But this seemed like an okay place so hopefully that was okay.

  6. I too agree that meeting a online friend, celebrity, or any other person I admire is a terrifying notion.

    Though, who knows if I'd adjust after a while, or if my brain would just shut down completely. It's funny that you wrote of this, because I was just thinking about it.

    It went something like, 'what if I were to meet up with three of my online friends all at once? And one of them brought their partner along too?' That honestly seems like a form of torture to me.

    I also agree that entering a contest to meet your favorite actor/musician/whoever is weird, and I can't see how it'd be enjoyable for even a second.

    Hi [Insert Musician Name Here] Want me to show you my collection of all your CDs, posters, and other memorabilia that has your face on it? Then I can tell you how I much I love you for the next three hours!

    I think this is a feeling most can relate to. I don't know if it's amplified for me because I have CP and am always worried about falling, so if I fell in the presence of an online friend/whoever I just feel like it would ruin the entire experience for both them and myself. And I'm just socially awkward as it is.