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:
hee hee hee hee
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:
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.