Just a Little One

I was proofreading my most recent post when something happened that made it almost impossible for me to finish.

Don’t worry: everything’s fine. No earthquake; no broken pipes (I manage a building); no sudden storm of rocks falling from a blue sky (I read a lot of weird fiction). If you’re neurotypical and you’d been sitting in the same room with me, you probably wouldn’t have noticed anything amiss. Because in a way, nothing was.

I took a deep breath, tried to remember everything that regular meditation has been teaching me about focus, and managed to finish proofreading and posting.

Then – finally! – I was able to get up and follow bodily where my mind had been the whole time.

In terms of being able to function in what’s usually considered a normal environment, autistic people often struggle with a double-whammy disadvantage. We tend to get engaged by what are often considered details, and we don’t do well when it comes to ambient noise.

That first one doesn’t have to be a bad thing. I’ve worked as a professional proofreader (and a darned good one) because I love how words are spelled. Catching an error can feel like a moral triumph, the righting of a great wrong. I am making the world a more beautiful place, one “i before e except when it isn’t” at a time.

There’s not much upside when it comes to the noise thing, though. If you’re autistic, odds are good that you’re living in a loud loud loud loud world. It’s no fun. It’s sometimes painful. And sometimes it makes it nearly impossible to cope, let alone pass for a nice normal person.

I felt relieved and a little overwhelmed when, in the course of reading Cynthia Kim’s I Think I Might Be Autistic, I got to the part where she asked readers if they have “atypical sensory experiences.” Do I have unusually sensitive hearing? Do I often hear sounds that other people don’t even notice? Do I ever.

Her question about whether I had trouble conversing in the presence of background noise almost brought me to tears. It reminded me of all the times people have been frustrated by my “paying too much attention” to noise. It can be difficult to make it clear I’m not choosing to be overwhelmed by random sounds when I’d really like to just have a normal back-and-forth conversation.

Here’s how I had to explain it once to someone who truly thought that I just wasn’t trying hard enough to focus on what they were saying, and who suggested that I “just ignore” the noises in question:

“I want you to imagine that we’re sitting and talking just like we are now. And now, while I’m talking to you and you’re listening to me, I want you to imagine that someone just came up to you and started touching you on the shoulder. And then on your arm. And now a few little taps on your back. None of this is hard enough to be painful. The person doesn’t mean you any harm – let’s say it’s someone you know, someone who cares about you and would never hurt you. You’re not at any risk. They’re just touching you softly. Gentle taps. A few on your forearm now. One on the other shoulder. Doesn’t hurt. Doesn’t stop, either. And it’s pretty random. You don’t know where they’re going to tap you next.

“Meanwhile, I’m telling you about something that happened to me today – something that isn’t life-threatening or even life-changing, but still it’s pretty important to me. I want to share it with you. I thought you cared about my life. You do care about my life. You want to hear about it. You’re trying to listen. It’s not as if you can’t hear over all that tapping on your arm. Your shoulder. A little one on your elbow. Don’t worry – it’s not hard enough to hurt. On your wrist now. Tap, tap, tap. Tap.

“How are you doing following what I’m saying? Is this a fun conversation for you?”

When I’m trying to follow a conversation – or write one, or proofread one in the case of last week’s blog post – it can be beyond hard to “just ignore” ambient noise. 

I do what I can. I put on instrumental music I’m familiar with – hooray for the autistic tendency to listen to the same albums over and over and over again. I own and use multiple white noise machines. I meditate in an effort to build up “tune it out” muscles I’m not always convinced I have.

None of this helps when a noise is a combination of piercing and important to me. Which this one was.

It was a tiny whistling sound. Just a little one. But it’s one I haven’t heard in two years.

I live in an apartment building with a small balcony on one side and a big open courtyard on the other, filled with flowering plants. We get a lot of birds – especially now that I offer excellent quality birdseed. (The less expensive stuff leaves too many shells around for my already long-suffering neighbors to deal with.)

My apartment is on the second floor, so the birds feel safe on my balcony or poking around on the deck outside my front door. This gives me the opportunity to observe them at what’s ground-level for me but elevated and protected for them. 

A few years ago, I noticed the kind of detail I cherish.

Mourning doves are known for their signature wistful cooing sound. However, mourning doves who are big enough to be out of the nest but young enough to still be somewhat dependent on their parents have a signature sound of their own.

It isn’t a coo. It’s a whistle.

I’ve noticed this about the songbirds we attract, too. They each have a young adult call all their own – a recognizably “birdy” sound, to be sure, but one that’s as distinct from a mature bird’s utterance as a human baby’s cry is from a grown person’s conversation.

So far as I can tell, this makes good evolutionary sense. Young birds are often as big as their parents. But even when they’re out of the nest, they’re far from mature. In terms of taking care of themselves, they’re much less capable than a human teenager would be under similar circumstances.

Having a call that sounds, to another bird of the species, like a human toddler saying “mama?” just makes sense. It lets everyone in the community know that this little one needs some care, and that it certainly isn’t old enough to be dating yet.

Because birds only have babies at certain times of the year, if you don’t hear the youngster-sounds in the summer, you’re not going to get to at all. 

Which is no big loss for plenty of people, but I was really disappointed last summer not to get to hear that special sound the one time of year that a dove whistles rather than cooing.

If any humans had been present when I heard that thin wistful sound a few days ago, I probably wouldn’t have even triedto keep up my end of the conversation. I would have explained myself as best I could while I was tiptoeing over to the front door and confirming that – yes! There it was! A mourning dove so young, its underside was still baby-fuzz rather than full-grown feathers.

I had two reasons to be happy. 

The first: I was able to get some videos to capture that adorable sound. Those will keep me going if I miss out next year, too.

I was also very proud to have been able to finish the task at hand with that kind of distraction. To a neurotypical – even a bird-loving one – it might not have been much. It might not have been audible.

To me, it was like trying to proofread with a human baby crying right next to me.

I was almost through with my work when I first started hearing that sound, which is probably why I was able to complete what I was doing before jumping up and focusing on something really important.

Neurotypical or not, there are some sounds everyone should listen to.

3 thoughts on “Just a Little One

  1. Wow, I have a similar problem just because hearing aids amplify most sounds. While my extremely expensive (to me) hearing aids do have a feature where you can “focus sounds within the vocal ranges” for me, it is something one has to get used to in a noisy environment. Apparently, this is a skill that one has to refine. I got these new hearing aids last summer during the pandemic. So my first forays into social situations since California has opened back up have been stressful to me.

    I can honestly empathize for you in this instance. Let’s hope our coping skills improve with some time.

    Liked by 1 person

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