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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Background Noise - the annoying reality

I want to address a topic today that has a wide impact on all aspects of learning and functioning for most individuals on the autism spectrum - the debilitating effects of background noise. Here is a picture drawn by Brett (who has Asperger's Syndrome) showing his reaction to a regular classroom environment where the other students are chatting. The number in the bottom right-hand corner represents his irritation level (from Tony Attwood's emotional thermometers) - well past the "danger" level, at 100%.

For most neuro-typical people, screening out and damping down background noise is an automatic ability. Many people don't even realize how loud the background noise is until something specifically draws their attention to it. For example, have you ever attempted to audiotape a lecture at school or at a conference? From where you're sitting, the speaker's voice seems perfectly clear, and you have no doubt that the audiotape will be of high quality. Then you go home and try to listen to it - to your great surprise, all you can hear is voices of people in the audience, whispers and rustles, an annoying air conditioning fan from overhead, the sounds of footsteps - the speaker's voice is barely audible and certainly not clear enough to decipher the meaning of what he or she is saying.

Perception and processing of language is an active process involving multiple levels of your neurological system. The raw sound signal that hits your outer ear is a mass of sensory information. Your auditory system goes to work on that signal immediately, with automatic processes turning up the volume of the person you're listening to, and turning down the volume of everything else in the room. Your visual system feeds in information as well, with your eyes picking up non-verbal communication cues that fill in gaps in the auditory signal's information. Your knowledge of language allows your brain to assign meaning to indistinct words by quickly sorting through all of the possible things that might have been said (based on the flow of information). At the same time, your brain also scans the background for important information that you might want to know - like the sound of a fire alarm, or perhaps simply a question from another speaker in the audience that your ear will tune to, so that you can follow the flow of verbal interaction. All of these brain functions happen automatically, in milliseconds, so far below your conscious level of thinking that you are totally unaware of them.

Individuals with ASD may have weak or non-existent abilities to effectively process the raw auditory signal. For them, any group situation is a wash of babbling voices, overwhelming their senses and their ability to think. Often a rise in background noise can cause a behavioural outburst or melt-down. The ASD individuals that I see commonly report that the sound of human voices is more irritating than other environmental noises - it seems that words and language are harder to simply ignore (part of the brain insists on attempting to process the language, even if you don't want to).

Here is a movie created by a young friend of mine named Michael. Michael is verbal, but can have difficulty explaining in words why he does certain things - his drawings can be more revealing about the thought process behind his actions. He often draws pictures in sequences that are very much like animation "storyboards". To encourage this type of expression, I have frequently "translated" his drawings into short Flash movies (by scanning his drawings, importing them into the animation program, and making his drawn "plans" come to life). This short movie clip originated with a spontaneous drawing that Michael made of a machine he called the "blah blah sucker" - a fabulous invention that would suck the annoying words out of the background of his world. The storyboard sequence of "what happens next" was drawn during his session with me - I love the humour that he shows in the ending:


Michael is currently learning how to make animated movies himself, using a simplified version of Flash (called "Koolmoves") that has a more direct user interface than the full Flash animation program (easier to simply work on the screen, choosing tools from a toolbox, but not having to deal with putting items in layers or specifying "tweens" that control the movement pattern between key frames). My hope is that this will provide another channel of expression for him, and perhaps also lead to development of skills that will help him find employment as an adult.

So what's the moral of the story? Pay attention to the environments that ASD individuals are exposed to, especially when you're asking that person to use language, or learn something new. Understand that an ASD student may receive 0% of the verbal information given in class, so they should always have a visual version of the information to look at while the teacher is talking, and a permanent copy given to them to keep for study (don't make them take notes while you talk). Use noise-blocking headphones to subtract background noise during classroom work periods - for students who are self-conscious about standing out, try using ear-bud headphones with a personal music player, so the music can block out the sound of external voices (you may need to experiment to see what "blocking" auditory information is helpful vs. distracting). If the ASD person is participating in an activity where the background noise is high (eg. gym class, social activity like bowling), make sure key information is in a visual format, give information ahead of time (eg. as a social story), and don't expect a lot of conversation out in the hub-bub. Give the ASD student access to quiet spots to work and learn (to be used with your encouragement, but at their discretion). If you're a job coach, pay attention to background noise, when you are assessing co-op and permanent work placements for ASD clients. For family members, make sure the home environment has quiet "escape spots" so that the ASD individual has a chance to get away from the noise and unwind, decompress and recharge - make home a haven from the chaos they must constantly deal with out in the larger world.

This is another example of how important it is to have a way to look at the world through the "eyes of autism". Drawing about difficult situations reveals key information that helps those of us on the "outside" to unravel, understand and find solutions to the challenges that every-day life presents for those living on the spectrum.

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