Sensory issues and focus

I thought I would make a few posts about some of the specific sensory and perceptual issues described by Olga Bogdashina as going along with Asperger’s or autism, since I think she does a good job of describing a lot of them.

In some cases, I can speak from experience about the sensory difficulties she mentions, though many of them I’ve never struggled with.

One thing that I can definitely identify with is what Bogdashina describes as “Inability to distinguish between foreground and background,” or “Gestalt perception“:

“There is much evidence that one of the problems many autistic people experience is their inability to distinguish between foreground and background stimuli (inability to filter foreground and background information). They are often unable to discriminate relevant and irrelevant stimuli. What is background to others may be equally foreground to them; they perceive everything without filtration or selection.

As Donna Williams (1996) describes it, they seem to have no sieve in their brain to select the information that is worth being attended. It can be described as ‘gestalt perception’, i.e. perception of the whole scene as a single entity with all the details perceived (not processed!) simultaneously. They may be aware of the information others miss, but the processing of ‘holistic situations’ can be overwhelming.”

I tend to experience this the most with sound.  For example, if I’m in a restaurant, I can’t help but listen to the music they play as “background” noise– meaning that I try to figure out the lyrics and tune and evaluate whether I know the song and whether I like it.  But if I make a comment about the music to one of the people I’m eating with, it often goes like this:

“The songwriter must have gone on strike halfway through this song!”


“This is a pretty repetitive song.”

“What is?”

“The song that’s playing right now.”

“Oh; I wasn’t listening to it!”

Not listening to the music isn’t usually an option for me; if I notice it, my brain automatically pays attention and tries to make sense of what I hear.  The same goes for all of the conversations among people at the tables surrounding me.  I am not trying to eavesdrop, but my brain is taking mental note of each word it is able to recognize.  As different conversations overlap, I am unable to follow just one, but I might hear five words at a time from one table, then three from another, then a loud outburst of laughter from another, and so on.  It’s not useful information to me, so I discard it as soon as I hear it, but my brain is still working to decipher as much as it can– all while trying to listen to the music and hear what the people at my own table are saying!

I think this is one reason why it can be so tiring simply to be in a crowded room– it overstimulates my brain with all of the auditory information.  I’m actually amazed that people’s brains are able to decipher as much as they are when it comes to sound.  The sound we hear is transmitted by compression waves in the air of the room; the air is full of signals overlapping signals overlapping signals– as though fifty people were using the same line on a piece of notebook paper to write fifty different messages.  But our brains are able to sort through and even choose which information to listen to and which to discard.  For whatever reason, though, this process seems to be something I do consciously; whereas it’s not for a lot of other people.

I find it pretty amusing that restaurants play music for the benefit of those who don’t listen to it– I think it’s intended to have a subconscious effect; the room would certainly sound “dead” without it– but most of the time people don’t keep track of the songs or even notice that music is playing!  When I talked about this with my family a while ago, my Mom said that the music simply faded into the background for her, but my Dad said that he tended to keep track of it the same way that I did.

I have noticed that if I get really engaged in a conversation, such that I am actually participating in it and thinking of things to say, I will lose track of the music for a while (for instance, I will lose count of how many songs have played since I sat down at the table).  It’s really nice whenever that happens, because I can participate more naturally and it doesn’t feel quite as tiring.

I’m curious whether other people with Asperger’s or without it experience anything like this when it comes to background noise.

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