Autism Tech Support

Autism Tech Support: Headphones

It’s been a while since my last Autism Tech Support post, so I felt it was about time. I’ve actually been wanting to write about headphones since the beginning because headphones were one of the first things, I bought that really started changing my life.

Sound, smell and light are the things that can cause me most pain. Being on a train or a bus is one of those experiences where I’m often lucky enough to encounter all the things at the same time. At home it’s much easier. If the sun is shining and hurting my eyes, I can block it out and if there is a bad smell, I can light some calming incense. It’s quiet where I live, and the occasional noise can be cancelled out by me playing music or an audiobook. I am a great fan of nature sound videos on YouTube and I even have a machine that makes nature sounds for sleeping.

I have lived in big cities many times before and I really hate it. I always have. It’s almost impossible to stop the sound of cars and people from the outside, or even from neighbours, so to me living in big cities is sort of like being one of those torture victims that are locked in a dark, hot container with the same one song on repeat constantly. I prefer the countryside by far and I was lucky enough to grow up pretty much out in the middle of nowhere and only had to deal with the bigger cities when I started university back in 2007. Since then, I’ve lived in many different places; from small cities like the one I live in now to Tokyo, Japan.

Of all the things we have to deal with, sound can be one of the things that is the most difficult to deal with, but I have learned that one of the best ways to deal with it is to simply be honest about it. It could be that there’s too much noise in a restaurant or café and I can’t handle it, and so I simply tell people what noise is bothering me and most of the time they agree to either sit somewhere else or go to a different place altogether. Of course, sometimes we can’t just leave, and we have to find a way to deal with whatever sound is bothering us. This is where headphones come in.

When I have to go somewhere, especially when I need to take the bus or train can be terrible.

On my first flight to Japan, back in 2008 when I visited for the first time, I didn’t bring headphones. I used the ones we got on the aeroplane, because I didn’t actually have money for headphones back then. I had never been on such a long flight before, because flying around in Europe is always only a couple of hours, so I had no idea I would literally start going a bit stir crazy after eight hours. I did, though. After ten hours I started to think I wasn’t going to make it. I was frantically searching for something to distract me so that I wouldn’t make a scene right there in the aeroplane and I flipped randomly through their music catalogue. I had given up on movies, because I couldn’t focus on plot or voices. I needed music to cancel out all the sounds of the aeroplane and the other people. It was the only thing I could really control, since I couldn’t leave my seat. Luckily, it was dark as we were arriving in Japan early in the morning. If it had been light, I don’t know if I could have made it. The smells were bad, but I tried to cover my face a bit, so the smell wouldn’t reach me as much.

As I sat there, looking a bit like a crazy person I’m sure, I randomly chose the album Hotel California by Eagles and it just saved me. I heard that album on repeat the entire remaining part of my journey. To this day, I feel like it might just be the best album ever created. I am not even a huge fan of Eagles, even though I do still like them a lot. It’s simply that the songs on the album are connected in a special way that I have never seen on any other album since then. I always feel better, calmer, when I listen to this album.

It was after this experience that I started listening to music in a different way. I had heard Eagles before, but they weren’t something I listened to a lot. In fact, when I was a child I would mainly listen to classical music, opera or my mother’s old rock albums – and of course, Michael Jackson. The contemporary music in the 90s were not appealing to me at all. Now, I happen to find it rather nostalgic, but it’s still not my thing. However, my taste in music has grown to include other things too, and I use the different genres to guide my mood whenever I need to. It helps a lot.

I feel like I got a bit side-tracked. The point is, when I am out in the real world and I am confronted with noise that I can’t get away from, I get my headphones and put them on. I use noise cancelling headphones, of course, because they literally filter out all the bad noise that bothers me. I don’t like when it’s completely quiet and I’m out amongst people, so I use the music to guide my mood; calming music make me calm, happy music makes me feel better and so on.

I remember the first time I ever heard about noise cancelling. It was like a miracle.

It was many years ago, I had been at a party the day before and I was very tired and hungover. I had had to get up early, because Jan Guillou was coming to a book fair in the city and I wanted him to sign my copy of Onskan, which is a brilliant book. I love books, always have and always will. I am willing to go through a lot to get a book I want or to meet a writer I admire. Book fairs are also something I both hate and love. I hate it because of all the people and yet, I love it because of all the books.

I was walking aimlessly around feeling sorry for myself when I came across a booth stocked with electronics. As I was staring at the stuff they were selling and wondering why on earth they were in a book fair, one of the salespeople saw me. I could instantly tell I had been selected. You know, he was looking at me like he had decided for me that I would be his next happy customer. He approached me and as my mind panicked looking for an escape, my body was too tired and slow to move away quickly enough and within seconds I had been cornered. He made me go with him to this thing that looked like a phone box that had been cut in two and handed me a pair of headphones while he explained a lot of things about what noise cancelling actually was, but I wasn’t really listening. I was just thinking in my head about what a horrible day it was turning out to be.

Then, he put the headphones on my head and then, when he turned on the music, the world became noiseless and my mind went blank. I couldn’t hear a word he was saying, all I could hear was the clear tones of music. All the noise from the book fair disappeared and I felt like a miracle had just happened to me. It was the most beautiful experience I had had at the time and it remains with me today as a true moment of peace and awareness.

I bought the cheapest one on the spot, and even though I was pretty broke at the time, I didn’t regret it for a second – in spite of the fact that I could barely eat for the rest of the month. It was worth it.

I have been using noise cancelling ever since, although occasionally I have tried out other headphones or earphones, in the end I always come back to noise cancelling.

Some advice about buying headphones is; make sure you get the right fit. Sometimes, we can try on headphones and it feels like they are a perfect fit, but then after wearing them a couple of hours, they start really hurting your ears. I have a wonderful pair that I quickly discovered really hurt my right ear because of the placement of one of my earrings. I also tried some that just didn’t fit the shape of my ear. Make sure you try them on for a bit, before you buy it, because my second piece of advice about buying headphones is don’t buy the cheapest one – get the best one for you. Sometimes, the cheapest one might be the best one for you, but sometimes we have to pay a little more to get the right quality of sound and the right fit. Trust me, it’s worth it to make sure you find the right headphones.

Whether you like noise cancelling or not, well, that’s up to you. Some might find noise cancelling a bit too much like being trapped in a bubble, but others like me love it.

Getting the right headphones is important. Even if you don’t go out much, having proper headphones just makes it easier to go out at all. Last time my headphones broke, I had to go a couple of weeks before I had enough money to buy new ones and it was hell. Once I had gotten used to headphones, not having them with me made me even more aware of how painful the noise of the outside world can be. Headphones are like a safety net; even if I don’t wear them, I always bring them with me just in case. I feel more comfortable knowing that if something happens or hurts, then I can put on my headphones and soon I’ll feel better.

That’s about it this time. I hope you’ll give headphones a chance if you are not already using them. They might be able to help you when going outside. Just remember to always be aware of your surroundings and stay safe!

Oh, and in case you were wondering, I did get to meet Jan Guillou and he signed my book!

Kai

I graduated my masters in 2017 with a major in Japanese studies and a minor in international relations. Since my graduation I have focused on figuring out who I am, because I was diagnosed with Asperger's (Autism Spectrum Disorder) and it made me rethink my life and allowed me to understand myself better. Because I have always been passionate about writing, I decided to blog about my life in the hope that it can increase autism awareness.

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