Category: Sensory Integration

Environment Poems

Sensory Integration October 11, 2018

In February 2017, I took part in a residency at Testing Grounds, Melbourne, with the art collective While the Hour. Testing Grounds is in the middle of the city, on a busy road. The loudness of the environment made it difficult for me to work there, because I was in sensory overload from the moment I arrived on site each day until long after I’d returned home to safety each evening.

Because I couldn’t filter out the environmental noise, I decided to make it the focus of my project. I attempted to notate the noises I heard – the sounds of car engines, construction work, aircraft, squealing tyres, etc. – and compile them into a glossary. Here is a snippet of the glossary:

H

haaah
hee
hee hee hee hee
heee
hee-e
heeee
heeeeeau
heeeeeee
heeeee-ee-ee
heee-eei
heeeiiie-ee
hooweek
hoowooohaawaaeeehooweeooaliiah

This idea wasn’t a new one for me. It’s a technique I’ve returned to over and over again in the last several years. Sometimes I notate the sounds without trying to make verbal sense of them, as in the list above. Other times, I try to translate the notations into English words, and use them as the basis for a poem. For example, I wrote this poem when I was living in Washington State, USA, using noises I collected on a bus journey:

Bus Hum

Out of luck you check your pockets
Hear a warning in a mutter
What a week to cheat your boredom
Other pockets always cleaner

Leech a fortune from another
What a week to take the border
Other meadows always greener
Pick a voice that doesn’t stutter

Lock it in your practised patter
What a cheek to take a quarter
Luck into a better board room
Post a bank check in a notecard

Other water always wetter
What a bore to make a fortune
Out of luck you take the border
Other voices always clearer

Hear a warning from another
Other fortunes always cleaner
Other pockets always leaky
Luck into a better bank note

Buck the fortune of your boredom
Pick a week and check your pockets
Out of luck you hear a warning
Other dollars always greener

Part of being autistic (for me, at least) is not filtering sensory information in an ordinary way. Human, social noises (i.e. speech) are not foregrounded in my perception. I have to consciously work at prioritising human communication in order to give it the socially expected degree of attention that most people can give it automatically and intuitively.

I saved this blog post as a draft, and now I’ve come back to it again, I realise I’ve described the above perceptual difference in a way that implies a deficit, a way in which I must struggle (and frequently fail) to measure up to social expectations. I expressed it in this way without even realising what I was doing, because that is the way these differences are usually expressed in our society. It’s so common for differences to be spoken of in terms of deficits that it can start to feel as though that implicit value judgement is an unchangeable part of reality, when actually it is a reality we remake ourselves each time we talk with each other. So let’s reword the previous paragraph:

Part of being autistic (for me, at least) is not filtering sensory information in an ordinary way. I have an egalitarian perceptual world in which human and non-human noises are of equal importance. Most people must deliberately and painstakingly tear themselves away from the perceptual hierarchy that prioritises social information. Luckily, it takes me no effort to realise that I am alive in a sensory universe.

I don’t believe that the above poem, or any poems like it, are literally being said by the places where I collected those sounds. I don’t believe that nonhuman entities are speaking to me in a slurred and coded English, or indeed that they are speaking to me at all in a literal, social sense. Nevertheless, these sounds figure large in my perception, and therefore they have meaning for me – just not a social or linguistic one. By turning the sounds of my surroundings into human-readable words, I can at least indicate that meaningfulness to others. I can point at my socially-implicit deficit, and tell you that it is not deficit, but surplus.

A SOUND BARRIER

Sensory Integration October 2, 2018

I wrote this essay in February 2017, as part of an artist residency at Testing Grounds, with While the Hour arts collective. My project for this residency involved an attempt to discern and notate the cacophony of nonhuman sounds I heard in that place.

TESTING GROUNDS

The traffic noise here is more or less constant. The site is in the centre of the city, where peak hour lasts all day. The noise is not altogether uniform – there are discernible, wave-like patterns in the volume. This variation could perhaps be explained by the surrounding traffic-light cycles, which compress and release the vehicular flow, creating intersecting formations that sometimes amplify and other times obliterate each other. Still, the frequency of these waves causes an overall effect of constant, unchanging noise – a dusty and supernaturally turbulent ocean beach.

When I take the traffic sounds as my point of focus, I begin to feel as though time has stopped. The consistency of the wave across the day dampens the feeling of time’s motion. Time has frozen, yet the traffic keeps inexplicably passing. I know, intellectually, that I am hearing an effect of constant change, but I feel, bodily, the solidness, the dependability – the soundness – of the sound.

I feel the soundness of the sound, but I feel it via an unsoundness of my body. I notice a turbulence in my chest and gut, an agitated rolling and juddering across my skin. I suddenly feel a desire to lie on the ground or prop myself up against a wall. I’m looking for a sounder body to lean on, to brace myself against the intangible body of the noise.

WHALES

Whales can see barely 20 metres ahead in the water, but can hear a wave crashing on the shore from thousands of kilometres away. They use their voices to communicate, and they use their finely developed echolocation abilities to find prey and to understand the contours of their environment. Where a human’s consciousness and sense of self relies heavily on visual information, a whale’s is based primarily on sound.

The oceans have become much noisier over the last century. Busy shipping routes and underwater gas exploration have contributed to what marine scientist Christopher Clark calls “acoustical bleaching” – an intense blanket of noise that drowns out the whales’ voices, preventing them from feeding and communicating.

Whales have been observed hiding behind rocks and moving dangerously close to the shore in an attempt to escape the noise of underwater explosions. Whales living in noisy parts of the ocean are thought to be suffering from chronic noise-induced stress.

WAVES

At Testing Grounds, I feel awash in noise. I had planned to spend most days working here over the residency, but in the end I found I spent most days hiding from the site.

I had noticed the ocean of noise on my first visit, and realised that I would be unable to ignore it or to easily focus on anything else while I was there. Most people I meet appear to have the ability to filter out unnecessary aural information. This is an ability I have never been able to share or to fully comprehend.

I decided that if I could not ignore the noise, I would make it the focus of my work at Testing Grounds. This tactic had worked for me in the past, ameliorating my stress by narrowing my focus.

Yet, despite my best efforts and my lifetime of finely-honed coping strategies, I felt as if I was drowning. I fled home, and I dreaded having to return the next day. The site is as impossible and inaccessible to me as if it were situated on the bottom of the ocean floor.

A SOUND BARRIER

Humans, like whales, experience psychological ill-effects from noise pollution. Noise-induced sleep disturbance can contribute to high blood pressure and mood problems. Noise can impair concentration and increase irritability, having negative effects on people’s interpersonal abilities.

Noises from traffic, aircraft and industry typically come to people’s attention only when they are loud enough to cause a disturbance. These noises are perceived as inherently bad, meaningless, or unproductive. They are an unfortunate by-product that spills out of an otherwise useful device or activity, an excess that we can accept insofar as we can ignore it in favour of more meaningful aural activities.

This is no surprise. These sounds are unpleasant, cacophonous, and unstructured. They have no meaning aside from their undifferentiated excess. They are difficult and worrisome and pointless. They are the offcuts and refuse of something more desirable. It’s hard to love trash.

It’s hard to love trash, but I think trash is still worthy of remark, for no reason other than that it exists. I think it’s worth acting as if the noise is meaningful, even when there is no meaning to be discerned. The noise is audible, and that is more than enough.

REFERENCES

Stansfeld, S. A., & Matheson, M. P. (2003). Noise pollution: non-auditory effects on health. British Medical Bulletin, 68(1), 243-257. doi:10.1093/bmb/ldg033

Jenner, C. (2017, February 15). Too much noise in the ocean for whales’ sensitive ears. The Conversation. Retrieved from http://theconversation.com/too-much-noise-in-the-ocean-for-whales-sensitive-ears-17933

Schiffman, R. (2016, March 31). How Ocean Noise Pollution Wreaks Havoc on Marine Life. Yale Environment 360. Retrieved from http://e360.yale.edu/features/how_ocean_noise_pollution_wreaks_havoc_on_marine_life