Normal Is Overrated

Musings and meanderings on the autistic spectrum

June 4, 2007

Say what?

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).

Filed under: Auditory Processing,Sensory Issues — codeman38 @ 11:10 pm


  1. Cody and I have chatted several times about sensory integration issues — we seem to share many of the same processing quirks and problems. Our discussions have gone a long way towards explaining to me why it is so much easier for me to write than use the phone, and why I lose so much of the average phone or face-to-face conversation, and have to guess at words from the context. I thought I was the only one who tried to mentally picture the words of a conversation in order to understand the speaker’s meaning, but apparently I am not alone in that after all. In my reading on autism and Asperger’s Syndrome, I am getting the opinion that the books written by psychologists often completely miss or barely touch on the subject of sensory issues, while sensory issues are often (and rightly so) an important topic in books written by people with AS/HFA, and books written by occupational therapists. One a/A book I read lately (written by a psychologist) mentions the senses only in the context of training a child out of his “irrational phobias” about loud noises. My take on it is that it’s hardly an “irrational” reaction if those particular noises are painful to the child. I look forward to reading more posts here which give real insights into life on the autistic spectrum.

    Comment by Emilie — June 6, 2007 @ 12:09 am

  2. Yep, I know exactly what you mean about preferring text and subtitles (closed captioning) to normal speech, Cody. I see you’re already a member of the “text_is_life” community on LJ, but for other people who might want to check it out, take a look here: . I discovered this comm when it first started, and although it’s not very active, it’s still a good community.

    And yes, I also have something resembling perfect pitch – I don’t actually have perfect pitch itself as I can’t tell you what note something is just by hearing it – I need to do a sort of mental scale before I can know, and even then I can be wrong sometimes. However, my relative pitch is superb. Also, like you, I can easily carry a tune, but lyrics are a problem – I need to specifically listen for them. Having said that, when I remember a tune the sounds of the lyrics are in there too so I can “sing” ghe lyrics by mimicking the sounds, if that makes sense.

    Comment by Ciaran — June 9, 2007 @ 8:29 pm

  3. I am finding this blog fascinating. It is interesting to learn about different ways the brain can work and how other people’s perceptions are different.

    I can empathize with your auditory processing being different from most people. Although I certainly experience the cocktail party effect, I seem to be less comfortable in the bar scene than many. For one thing, I can’t read lips. Another thing I experience is that I have a hard time understanding words when they’re sung; I don’t know what a lot of popular songs are about because I simply can’t follow the words.

    For whatever reason, I also prefer written communication in many situations. I wish my friends and family were more writative.

    Comment by Adrian — June 10, 2007 @ 2:57 pm

  4. This describes my situation perfectly.. Aside for the musical aptitude you have.
    I developed this phenomenon in graduate school after chicken pox w some nasty shingles type bonuses….

    So my question becomes did my celiac + a previously un-noticed super-low level of sensory integration problems or something else + my pre existing spacial issues (get lost in a paper sack, 300 trips to learn how to get some where and no contect of associated area or directions, suddenly bloom into this curtesy of a virus or did a virus cause this totally?

    Comment by Ellen3Davis — March 3, 2008 @ 5:34 pm

  5. I am glad to hear that I am not the only person in the world with this problem.
    Only, in my case while I often have to ask people “excuse me, could you repeat that please” thus may appear half-deaf to some, I am also hypersensitive to noises such as scrambling with chairs and cutlery, ventilation, and other random ambient noise. A dinner in a crowded indoor restaurant with hard walls, lots of chatting, scrambling and ambient noise, is not only frustrating due to my struggles with following conversations, but also physically painful – like constantly being hit by something from all directions, unpredictably and meaninglessly. Needless to say I don’t go to a lot of parties. Finding a solution to this would make quite a big difference.

    Comment by Anne — October 2, 2009 @ 7:12 am

  6. Would it help if the person sang instead of talking normally? I’ve heard some people recommend that for autistic kids.

    Comment by Ettina — November 26, 2009 @ 12:30 pm

  7. @Ettina: No, I have just as much trouble deciphering song lyrics, to be honest!

    Comment by codeman38 — November 26, 2009 @ 12:31 pm

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