Up until recent years, the general consensus was that people on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum didn’t respond appropriately to external stimuli. The “conventional wisdom” postulated that this was because “nothing gets through”. Eventually, the “experts” realized that they had it all wrong; everything gets through, without sufficient means to filter it out at the brain level. This became known as the “Intense World Theory” (link to published research paper from 2010). I’m here to add my voice to that conversation, in support of the idea that it’s not just a theory; the world really is too intense (for me).
It’s Friday night, but around here, you’d never know it. We live in a major city, but thankfully, we were picky chose wisely when we decided to leave our previous apartment/flat and find a new place to live. Despite the density of the immediately-surrounding population, all is calm, all is bright.
Our apartment, and the property on which it sits, provide a healthy insulating sanctuary.
“Sanctuary” is an interesting word. For me, it conveys a sense of peace, of relief, of escape.
Escape? From what?
Why, the outside world, of course.
The term often used, usually half-jokingly, is “hermit”. But some of us on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum, myself included, take that concept to a whole new level.
It’s not that I’m antisocial. It’s not that I hate people (although occasionally, I have my days). It’s not that the “shut-in” status that applies to so many of us is purely voluntarily chosen.
It’s a simple numbers game. People Like Me are gravely outnumbered by People Not Like Me. And as everyone knows, the majority rules. And despite the apparent phenomenon of positive selection of genetic traits, I’m not going to overthrow the ruling majority anytime soon.
Until I can, which I seriously doubt will happen in my lifetime, I live in a world that presents a daily attack on our senses.
The word “attack” is closely associated with aggression and the act of causing pain or discomfort to someone else. It could be argued that the world at large has this effect on people on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum–not only in one way, but in many ways. All the ways that are important.
The world is too bright. Flashing, jittering, attention-grabbing effects pepper every news cast, TV show, movie, and website. Large, brilliantly-lit LED screens attempt to steal our attention away from the freeways, using our frontage roads as their own personal advertising opportunity. Stores make efficient use of their space by jamming loads of products together on the shelves and light the way with cheap, mismatched, flickering fluorescent lights overhead, a definition of personal hell for me, encompassing everything I can’t stand in one place. Even the sun easily becomes overpowering–yes, even with shades in the windows or sunglasses on my face. Security lights blaze through the night, creating sometimes-false senses of safety, while buzzing and flickering. City streetlights blaze through our bedroom windows at night, as do our neighbor’s outdoor motion-sensor floodlamps assigned to too sensitive a setting.
The world is too loud. People talk too loudly, an annoying phenomenon that only amplifies when they’re talking to a person unseen by the rest of us on their mobile phones. Somehow the presence of the device turns up their own voice’s volume. Everyone seems like they’re shouting. I’m not always in the clear in my own home, either; my partner has to do much of the housework. Kitchen sink disposals, vacuum cleaners, and doors slamming create an unpleasant milieu of sonic hell. Young children holler shrilly, echoing throughout every linoleum-tiled grocery store, mall, or airport terminal.
The world is too rough. How did wool ever become a clothing material? What about polyester?? Who dreams this stuff up? Who thought it was a good idea?? How did percale sheets become the standard? How did nylons and underwire bras even remain legal? Don’t even get me started on contemporary shoe styles; high heels (or any heel that lifts the foot at all for non-medical purposes) are abhorrent enough. Who thought this was a good idea? Can other people really withstand this? Can they tolerate it?
The world stinks. Aftershaves, perfumes, and colognes flood and saturate the air on a frequent basis, usually without warning. People insist upon slathering themselves in every type of body “care” product, almost all of which are strongly scented. Restrooms are loaded with knock-you-over air fresheners that are almost worse than the normal effects of body function. It doesn’t help that I’m (involuntarily) one of Those People who has the nose of a dog in terms of sense of smell. I can tell when someone doused in perfume has walked across the parking lot within the last 15 minutes. It lingers for what seems like eternity. I can’t get away from it if I have to walk through that area. I shouldn’t have to get away from it if I’m outside, for pete’s sake. The horrid ridiculous scents get into my nose and make me sneeze. If this sneezing phenomenon picks up steam before I can escape the environment, it might progress in a snowball effect, and it might even eventually knock me out of any hope of productivity for the rest of the day. Thankfully, I don’t (yet) experience the headache I’ve heard others mention; I would be really pissed off if I did.
Here’s the interesting part: even if I like the scent, it’s still too overpowering. There is a such thing as too much of a good thing. I might like the smell, but I might still have a problem. Just because it smells good doesn’t mean it’s OK to go wild with it.
But if I don’t like the scent…heaven help the world. I get extremely irritable. In fact, it can trigger a bout of complete disgust, even anger. It’s short-lived, but it’s potent and immediate. Don’t even get me started on trash dumpsters, especially in the summer.
The world tastes disgusting, at least as far as conventional food is concerned. I can’t shop at “regular” grocery stores; I have to be one of Those People who shops at the yuppie trendy hipster health food stores, where they sell organic kale chips, flax seed milk, Gogi berry juice, chia seeds, wheatgrass smoothies, and sunflower seed butter. This is because I can’t stand the overpowering tastes of salt, MSG, artificial flavors, and preservatives that are endlessly added to “regular” food. (How do people not taste these things? How can people stand them??) I can’t stand the sugar added to ketchup or bread (the latter, for me, must be gluten free). I don’t even like cow’s milk anymore, and ditto for milk chocolate; I don’t even taste the chocolate, just the rotten, rancid milk. Eggs make me gag. Conventionally-raised meat tastes and smells disgusting; I can’t even breathe well when it’s being cooked; it fills the air with an invisible grime. Ugh.
My body can’t stand “regular” food, either. Red food coloring makes me jittery, worse than caffeine. Wheat makes me impossibly bipolar, after knocking me out as though I’ve been drugged. MSG gives me a rip-roaring headache, a feeling of having been punched in the gut, and forces my bowels to pretend that my sphincters don’t exist. (Sorry for the TMI; I’m sure I’m not alone, and I want to let those people know that they’re not, either.) 🙂
Speaking of disgusting, the world feels disgusting at times. Humid air feels like an incessant film. Hot run rays bake me, and cold air penetrates and pierces. Drizzle is even worse, for that once-ethereal film takes on a physical form and feels greasy to the touch. When I lived in a northern climate, I despised the salt solutions the crews would cover the roads with. It dried out my skin and felt all grainy on my hands, a sensation that I could never shake until springtime. And I’ve never liked to have too strong of a draft of air blowing on me. I can’t stand stagnant air, either. Excessive air movement is irritating and can even make me somewhat anxious. Stagnant air makes me irritable, too, but with more of a restless flavor; it’s like if the air isn’t moving, then I have to create the illusion that it is by my own movements.
The world is too dense, too many. Traffic sits bumper-to-bumper, backed up for miles on every freeway, every day. The construction of more strip-malls, apartment complexes, and yardless single-family housing developments threatens to stretch the capacity of our streets to its limits, only adding to the stress of driving to and fro. It only adds longer lineups at checkout counters, longer wait times for doctors’ appointments or at restaurants, fewer parking spaces, sparser housing availability (and the higher prices that go with it). People, people, everywhere. No matter where you go, at what time of day, there are always too many people.
And these people contribute to the ever-growing load of lights, noise, and smells. These people leave less room to move and breathe freely, to enjoy some space. These people are additional potential judges and juries of my–everything: appearance, behavior, speech patterns, facial expressions…even the vehicle I drive and the scratches thereon, if we encounter each other outside. I live in a place that experiences continued explosive growth, and it’s interesting how people will choose to move to a place and then insist that their new place conform to them instead of the other way around. This of course results in unnecessary change, which is another topic (and pain in the arse) entirely.
I would just like the world to press pause on certain aspects, turn down the gain on some others, and stop a few others altogether. A complete clamp on strong perfume (especially those in which the carrier alcohol scent is more prominent) would be nice; most places have already universally outlawed smoking, so why not perfume? It’s the same concept; it causes reactions and catastrophic health effects in (more than) some people, newer research is hinting at their carcinogenicity, it’s offensive to the senses of many, and it’s a common complaint and health hazard. Bonus: it’s unnecessary. Nobody absolutely HAS to wear scented products.
I would love to see the world come to its senses and turn down its volume on other sensory aspects as well; not everything has to be so bright, so loud, so compressed, so shiny, so Bling. Not every food flavor has to “pop” addictively, driven by the addition of flavor enhancers like MSG. Not every light must be on all the time. Perhaps LED signage could be required to have (much) dimmer night time settings. Perhaps it can become considered much more uncouth to talk loudly on a mobile phone indoors. Maybe society can free itself of its fixation with slathering itself in every lotion, body wash, and other strongly-scented product. Perhaps grocery and household stores can house scented products in separate rooms, separated by doors whose default position is closed. Maybe TV sets could come with settings that allow one to neutralize the effect of audio compression, or to dim the flashes and jitters, or to hold the commercials/adverts still. Kind of like an Adblock Plus for TVs.
I wonder how much of this sensory overload is actually felt by many more people, too? Perhaps many other people, even non-autistic people, may also find the world overwhelming; it’s quite probable that we don’t have the monopoly on sensory sensitivity. The difference between “us and them” this time is, we’re aware of our traits, whereas they might not be.
At the very least, this likely provides a case report in favor of the Intense World Theory, which resonates soundly with me.
This means that turning down the volume (in any sense of the word) on the world just might help not only Asperger’s/autistic people, but perhaps many neurotypical people as well.
It’s definitely worth a try, simply because in lands of the free, one group, no matter how small, should not be so constantly inadvertently oppressed by another.
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(Image Credit: Android Jones)