By Cat Rafferty, Disabled Students’ Officer at Queen’s Students’ Union
Imagine someone took everything you could hear and then made the volume double. Then imagine whatever device they used wasn’t of great quality and what you hear now has lots of noise and crackling.
That’s what it’s like for me. I can hear more than most people around me – but that doesn’t make me any better at making sense of what I am hearing. In fact, I’m positively worse at it.
I’ve walked – usually very briskly (I’m late a lot) – to class via down the Malone Road from Elms Village every weekday during the semester for nearly three years now. It’s the same journey every day, and if you see me, you’ll probably notice I’m doing one of two things:
I’m either listening to my headphones, or talking to a friend.
These seem like pretty normal things, but for me, there’s a catch. I need to do these things.
I have Autism Spectrum Disorder and because of it, I have some prevalent quirks. I can tell you the birthdays of around 150 people from memory, I can tell you nearly anything you want to know about Elms Village and I taught myself to speak (fairly broken) Japanese.
However, my ASD also means I’m not great at filtering sensory information. This means I can very easily get overwhelmed by my environment and by the things my senses are telling me.
Different people with the condition will have different sensory issues. You’ll find some people who struggle with smells and others who have very low or high pain tolerance.
Personally, I struggle with noise. Ambient noise, loud noises, conflicting noises, high pitched noises, even silence; the list goes on.
So, when I am walking to class in the morning, I have to listen to music to block out the sound of cars as they pass by. For some reason, on the Malone Road, the sound of passing traffic is like a roar screaming in my ear and it’s unbearable. Talking to someone gives me something to concentrate on making it easier to filter the screeching out and listening to music through my headphones blocks out the sound to begin with.
The day the headphone jack in my phone stopped working; I quite literally had a mini breakdown. In fact, about 2 weeks later, I went on a day trip to Dublin. I was on my own in a place I didn’t know and my main coping mechanism was out of action. I began to freak out and got extremely agitated. I kept telling myself if I could make it to the restroom, I could calm down, get some privacy. Problems began to arise when I couldn’t even find any signage and even when I could, the toilets were pay to use. My head pounded, I couldn’t hear properly and everything started going black. Being in the middle of Dublin meant I didn’t know where I was and I wasn’t in a position to ask for help or explain to anyone what was wrong. So, I broke down in a corner on a staircase in St. Stephen’s Mall and started sobbing heavily. Not my most glamorous moment and not one I particularly want to relive anytime soon.
A woman – a complete stranger – came up to me, asked me if I was okay, and bought me a cup of tea. Honestly, I don’t know how long I would have been stuck there, but people like that woman help. People who ask what’s wrong, and don’t just point, stare, and mock make all the difference.