“Too many words were happening” and sensory sensitivities

For many years, the people around me, and even I to some extent, put some of my quirky behaviour or reactions down to my blindness, or just my being a bit unusual. It was only when I started doing some research because I was working with a learner with autism that I began to discover things like sensory sensitivity, which I never knew were a thing, and really relate to them.

The thing was, I started reading articles to be a better teacher, but I think one of the reasons I seemed to have more success communicating with this particular learner than some of the others around me was that some of the things I was reading made sense on a level that was deeper than just understanding the text. I got it!

That didn’t mean I related to everything – I didn’t have the learner’s difficulties with social interactions that set me off on my quest for knowledge in the first place, But other things came up that automatically made sense before I read the explanations.

I’m not an expert on this, and other people have done a much better job at describing them such as in this post from the Musings of an Aspie blog on sensory sensitivities and atypical sensory processing. Read it if you want more information – I certainly identified with a lot of it and was glad to realise that other people have these issues, not just me.

I mentioned it briefly in my post about Lush products. the reason I hadn’t been able to use dissolvable bath products was a texture thing. I don’t like how they feel, particularly when they’re wet, and I don’t like the bits of them that are in the water. It’s not just an “I don’t like it reaction” but an “I physically pull away from this texture and don’t want to be where they are”, and it would stop me enjoying the bath, even if it smelled wonderful and had loads of great ingredients. I don’t like body scrubs either. Some things can’t be fixed and I just avoid the textures, but I found by putting the bar or bath bomb in a little cloth bag that floats on the water, I don’t have to touch it and no stray bits get out! That makes it ok.

However, there are some things that I can’t fix. I remember telling my mum, very definitely, with all the conviction of a grumpy 5-year-old, that I would NOT be having lace on my wedding dress when I grew up. I was going to be a bridesmaid and didn’t like the feeling of the lace on my skin. I didn’t just not like it – I was constantly aware of it, like the thread of cotton in the post I linked above. My school jumper was no better, and I wore long sleeved blouses, even in the summer, so that when I had to put the jumper on, it wouldn’t touch me. I’m still not good with wool now. It doesn’t freak me out like the thing I hate the most, but if I wore it next to my skin, it would take up too much brain space because I’d be thinking about it all the time, and how it was scratchy, and if I moved I would feel it, that maybe it wouldn’t bee too cold if I took it off and…what did you just say to me?

. There are some other textures that I can’t do, and I avoid them at all costs!

It applies to sounds too. It’s not the same, because I don’t feel the same urge to run away, but I am hypersensitive to noise. I can follow conversations in loud places, or people competing with each other and talking at the same time, but it saps my energy in the same way that your phone’s battery would run down faster if you streamed video content instead of reading articles. If the background music is too loud, it’s not background music, but a constant assault on my ears, demanding my attention, and making it harder for me to concentrate on what I’m supposed to be listening to. I have no filter to tell my brain that those sounds aren’t important and can be ignored!

Some things are definitely related to blindness – having a really loud drill going on makes it difficult for me to orientate myself. I don’t like loud bars because I can’t lip read or even figure out if someone is trying to talk to me. But it’s more than that, and I’ve discovered it’s not just blind people who are hypersensitive to noise, or particular sounds.

You don’t just hear things – you hear everything – and your brain is trying to tell you that all of these things need to be taken notice of. It could be the dog barking and traffic sounds that were mentioned in the Musings of an Aspie post. It could be something that other people don’t notice, like a neighbour’s wind chime, that you can hear even when the windows are shut. It could be someone driving you to distraction by tapping their pen to the point where you want to grab and make off with it just so it will stop! It could be the clock that has to be taken out of a friend’s spare room where I was staying in the middle of the night and put in the hallway because it WOULD NOT STOP TICKING! Yes I did that and yes the friends did ask about it!

It could be water dripping on something in the neighbour’s garden every single time it rains. When I pointed it out and S started listening for it, he could hear it too, but it wasn’t the same for him as the thing that was bugging me, like a constantly pulsating heart that would only stop when the rain did! I am so glad that the thing – whatever it was – has been taken away now!

The title of this post came from a blog post that I was reading, and I feel bad now because I can’t find it again. It wasn’t the heading or anything – just a phrase that was used “too many words were happening”. As an English teacher, this is an unusual use of language – words don’t usually happen. They’re spoken or said or yelled – but they don’t just randomly happen. And yet I knew what the author meant . Saying that they were happening sounds like they take on a life of their own and are not under control, and it does feel like that for me, too, when I’m in a room and too many words are happening – all loudly and at the same time! I love the expression!

So the words and sounds keep happening and bashing my ears. If it gets too much and becomes overwhelming, I withdraw in sensory self-defence. It’s like a way of shutting down till the thing has passed. People just think I’m a bit quiet, but I’m really the tortoise who’s gone back in his shell till it’s over because I can’t function properly with so many audio stimuli fighting for my attention!

I can see why people might think this is blindness-related. After all, people generally assume that blind people have super-powerful ears. I think the truth is that we learn to use our sense of hearing more and hear the things that other people miss, because those things could be really useful in the absence of all the visual clues. It’s true, I sometimes hear parts of friends’ conversations that weren’t meant for me (I guessed a friend was pregnant before she told us because of a quiet comment to her husband), and I try not to abuse that! I hear the conversation on the next table in the restaurant without trying to listen to it – really funny when they notice that a colleague tried to kiss me and I clearly wasn’t happy about it! Yay! It was all I could do not to start laughing and then have the embarrassment of explaining why. But I’m not intentionally listening to everyone else’s life happening alongside my own.

Still, not everything that has to do with hearing is necessarily blindness-related. Whether that’s sensory-related, behavioural, or to do with how people perceive and respond to the world around them.

It’s not just blind people who struggle with not being able to filter out background sounds, excessive noise, or repetitive noise. Sensory sensitivity or problems processing sensory information are not just me being weird. It feels good to know that and to find that other people identify with these things too, particularly when those people can see, or they can explain a bit more of the science behind them.

In the past I’ve just made myself get on with it – less so as I have got older and am not as willing to be in environments that I really don’t want to be in. But if sensory sensitivities and atypical sensory processing are real things that have been identified and acknowledged. No amount of just getting on with and putting up with it are going to make it ok. And that’s ok!

So why did I write this post? Maybe because I’m a teacher and I like to share what I’ve learned. Maybe to encourage parents of blind children that you shouldn’t attribute every behaviour to blindness-related things. Maybe to say if you have friends who have sensory sensitivities, don’t give them a hard time about it because it’s not something you can change. And if you identify with any of these things, you’re not the only one! Knowing this fact helps me.

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