Rather than writing about autism in general today, I’m going to write about one aspect of my own personal experience: specifically, some of the quirks in my perception of auditory stimuli.
Long before I had an Asperger’s diagnosis, I had been diagnosed with auditory processing disorder. For those unfamiliar with that diagnosis, what it essentially means is that my hearing is technically fine, but the way my brain processes auditory input isn’t quite normal.
You know the so-called ‘cocktail party phenomenon’ that’s such a marvel to psychologists, where people can pick out a single person’s voice among a crowd of conversations in a noisy restaurant? I don’t experience that. When a bunch of people are talking at once, all I hear is a jumbled, incomprehensible mess. It might be slightly more comprehensible if the speaker I’m trying to listen to has a voice with a distinctive pitch compared to the crowd, or is speaking slightly louder, or is located closer; even then, however, it’s a struggle, and I still have to pay an awful lot of attention to extract that one thread of conversation from amidst all the noise.
(Needless to say, because of this, the college bar scene is not my ideal social environment. But that’s another post entirely.)
Distortion can also render speech incomprehensible. Phone calls, particularly on a cell phone with spotty reception, are frequently an exercise in frustration; even on a land line, higher frequencies (which make up common consonant sounds such as ‘s’ and ‘t’) are muffled due to the limitations of the phone system itself. The situation is somewhat less troublesome when I’m speaking to someone with whose voice I’m already familiar, as I’m already accustomed to that person’s speech patterns and can thus extrapolate more easily from the muffled signal. The same is true for environments with a loud echo; I can recall quite a few assemblies held in the gym back in middle school and high school where I couldn’t make out half of what the speaker was saying.
Even with a clear, distortion-free signal, there’s no guarantee that I’ll necessarily make out what someone’s saying. If someone has an unfamiliar accent or unusual speech patterns, for instance, I may have to go through a sort of learning period before I can really understand ‘on the fly’; most people seem to adapt much more quickly than I can. I also have some trouble understanding fast speech, particularly if I’m feeling tired or overloaded.
One other interesting thing I’ve noticed is that, when I’m really trying to comprehend something I hear, I’ll mentally translate it into written form, like a sort of mental closed-captioning. I think this might be one of the reasons I have so much trouble with faster speakers: doing this translation requires a sort of buffer, which overflows far more quickly, particularly if I’m feeling overwhelmed to begin with. A related quirk I’ve noticed is that sometimes this translation comes to a halt, or at least occurs to an incomplete degree, when I encounter some word that I can’t convert to a visual representation.
Given this, then, I suppose it’s no real surprise that I prefer text messaging and e-mail to phone calls, and that I prefer to watch TV and DVDs with captioning enabled.
Ironically, however, I also have perfect pitch; it seems that my auditory processing is far better suited to music than to speech. This leads to another rather interesting issue: I can carry a tune quite well, even remembering several layers of accompaniment, but lyrics are sometimes a mystery to me even after several listens until I’ve seen them in print (or, at the very least, listened very closely to separate them from the accompaniment).