I've worded this concept several times and have blogged about it a few, but in a presentation yesterday in TouchPoint's ADAPT (parent training) program I worded this perfectly.
Wherever you are right now I want you to stop for a second and just listen... ... ... ... Did you hear silence? I'm going to guess that you did not. Maybe a car was driving past your house, or maybe there's a conversation going on in an office near yours, or maybe a phone rang near by. Whatever it was I'm sure you heard something.
Perhaps in reading the latter half of the previous paragraph you already had tuned out those other noises. I love in my presentations when I talk about this and the look on people's faces when I prompt them to listen to all the noises that I point out. It seems to me that people who aren't on the spectrum have the ability to tune out all the extra noises in life and when I am speaking my words are the only thing that they hear. That must be nice because for me I hear all the noises without a filter.
I've used this in my presentation for over a year now in that school was difficult for me. Yes, the social aspect was a challenge, but also was the sensory aspect to it. I never had the key words to describe the name of it, but think back to a classroom setting with 20+ students. To say that is a quiet environment would be nothing short of a joke. Okay, so it might not be loud like a busy street corner, or a buzzing sports arena, but it doesn't have to be loud to be, well, loud. What I mean by that is every noise is heard, at least for me, and if there are 20 people in a room, or more, that is a lot of whispers, a lot of breathing, and a lot of potential coughing. Also, there are footsteps in the room and hall, conversations in the hall, and the ever present fear of a fire drill. All in all it isn't a sensory tame environment and when I went to school my days were usually the same; the first two hours went by great with minimal issues and then at about the third hour, sometime fourth which was lunch, I hit a wall.
This wall that I would hit would all but flatten me. Energy? Gone. Headache? Very much so. Knowing what I know now and from experiences I have on occasion I am sure that part of the problem was sensory exhaustion. That's my new keyword for this as I used to say overload but it isn't overload in the truest of senses. The term exhaustion works great because that's how I see it; my body would get to the point of just being tired of all the input.
Another exhausting aspect of this is the amount of focus it takes to listen to what needs to be listened to. I may be hearing everything but if the teacher was speaking I would have to intently focus to be able to hear and process the information all the while hearing each whisper under the breath or crinkle of paper. And in doing all that my mind would just wear itself out.
What can be done about this? I'm not sure and I don't think there is one easy universal answer. The first step is identifying it and I so badly wish now that someone back then would have been aware of this (of course being diagnosed at age 20 doesn't help any of that.) If I would have had a small break somewhere along the way I might have had more in the reserve tanks to forge onward through the sensory clutter. Even now I sometimes need to remove myself from a multiple sound environment to do this. Again, I want to restate that it doesn't have to be a single loud noise to do this as multiple noises at once are just as harsh to my system.
So that's what my thoughts are on this now. I think back to my issues in school and I think if someone had told me what my issues with in regards to this I probably would have denied this or stated a flat, "I don't know." That being said if you are a teacher with a student that might be having an issue like this I don't think you can expect the student to be able to say that the environment is too loud for them. Even now advocating for myself in a situation like that is difficult for me and that's why I do what I do. Sometimes we need help and sometimes the only way to get the help is if there is understanding. As I began this post, chances are you didn't hear any of the noises in your environment until prompted to listen. Moving forward I'd like you to keep that in your mind and maybe once a day take a minutes and listen to the sounds of life. Each time I'm sure you'll be amazed at what you hear, but each time just remember that, for a person on the spectrum, this might be the soundtrack that is always playing without an option to turn it down.