I’m sometimes asked what it feels like to be an Aspie. I don’t know, as it feels perfectly normal to me. I’ve been one for almost 68 years, and will remain so for the rest of my life. However, I sometimes wonder what it would be like to not being an Aspie, then shudder at the thought. You’re all so strange!
However there is one non-autistic trait I wish I did have, and that is the ability to filter incoming stimuli. This is simply because I am required to inhabit a world dominated by people who take sensory gating for granted. Most people on the autism spectrum are prone to sensory overload to some degree. I certainly am, and I think I might be able to explain it in a way that make sense for those of you who don’t experience it.
Let’s imagine that your job is to respond to all email sent to your office. If it takes on average about ten minutes to attend to each email, then over an eight hour working day you can process about fifty emails. So the forty or so that arrive on a typical day is a walk in the park. Sure, there will be times when they arrive in quick succession and some may require more time than others to process, and you may end up with five or perhaps ten in your inbox awaiting attention. You simply prioritise the messages and in quick order you’re back to an empty or near empty inbox.. However…
What you don’t see is all messages that have been sent to the office email address. As well as the forty messages you see, there are another 360 that have been caught by the the Spam filter on the office mail server. What would happen if the filter suddenly stopped working? Instead of processing forty emails per day, you’re now faced with processing 400 per day. That’s an average processing time of one minute and 12 seconds per message if you want to leave the office at your usual time. Sure, some of the messages will obviously be Spam, but a great many will not be so obvious at a cursory glance, and will take a few minutes to check their validity. Are you beginning to feel the pressure?
There’s one other bit of information that will really put the heat on. Your mailbox has developed a software fault and can hold, at most, twenty messages. Any more than that and one of two possibilities happens. Either, the new message pushes one of the existing messages out of the inbox where it simply disappears, or, it merges the new message with one of the existing messages, resulting in absolute gibberish. It’s not possible to predict which message will be pushed out or merged, nor which of the two possibilities will occur. So when your inbox contains nineteen messages and another thirty arrive within one minute, you know you’re in deep doo-doo.
Your sensory gating works in a way similar to the Spam filter. Anything that is irrelevant is stopped at the gate. You only have to deal with the important stuff. There are moments during the day when your “inbox” gets kind of full as you struggle to cope with two kids that won’t stop bickering, while a third has just taken a tumble off the shed roof and possibly has concussion and a broken arm. Meanwhile the dog has just thrown up on the new carpet in the lounge, and you discover the phone’s been disconnected because your spouse forgot to pay the bill last month. But on the whole you cope quite well, knowing that your “inbox” can hold hundreds or thousands of messages at any time.
On the other hand, I’m struggling with no Spam filter and a restricted “inbox”. My partner and I go to a restaurant for dinner. She’s wearing a broach that catches the light every few seconds. Each time it does, I receive a new message in my “inbox”. I ask her to remove the broach. She refuses, The candle on our table and the table on the left have tea light candles. Each time they flicker, I get a new email I blow out the candle on our table. My partner comments that that was very romantic deed. Is she being sarcastic? How does one know?
The table on the right has one of those confounded fake candles with an electric flame. It flickers incessantly. Each time it does, I get a new message. In the background, there’s piped music with a vocal track. Each time I hear recognisable word, another message is sent. At the table behind me there’s at least two conversations going on. Each time there’s a recognisable phrase, I get a new message, The same thing is occurring with the tables to our left and right. Each click of utensils on crockery anywhere in the room creates a new message. And then there’s the constant toing and froing of patrons and serving staff, sending multiple messages each time they cross the floor. And I haven’t even included the stimuli I am receiving from the food or the many messages that result from contact between my skin and the suit I’m wearing. One of the waitresses is wearing shoes that squeak (am I the only person hearing that?) and my partner thinks I’m being distracted by the waitress. She’s right, but the reason for the distraction is most definitely not what she thinks. It’s those darned shoes. The right one makes a different sound to the left. The result is a sort of sqeeek–squick, squeeek–sqick, and I get another email with each squick. I sense my partner is not happy with my distractedness, but to what degree I have no idea. My inbox is now overflowing, and I have no clue as to how many of the messages containing her half of the conversation have been lost, but I’m sure some of those messages have merged with the conversations going on around us. How else could “imdemnity clause” occur in the same sentence as “salted caramel fudge for desert”? Someone is wearing perfume and it’s making my head spin, not to mention my stomach churn. Each spin and churn results in another message. And we’re still deciding what to order from the menu…
All I want to do is run. But stay I must.
I’m wired to process fifty messages a day – just like you. But whereas you only have to process forty on a normal day, I’m faced with processing four hundred! Unlike you, I wasn’t given a Spam filter.