Noise disables me. Technology enables me.

issue/65

hello friend

I’m Pete Carr. I'm a photographer and this isn't a photography newsletter. This is a form of "Rubber Duck Debugging". Writing helps me process thoughts and work through problems. So I write to my computer about issues relating to mental health and being autistic. I then share it with you fine folk. There's nice photos too. 🖖


hello computer

Noise is my enemy. It is uncontrollable disruptive interference. Being autistic I am very sensitive to noise. I can't block it out. I hear too much all at once and I can't filter a single voice in a room. A rattling sound while I'm driving must be stopped. Bass bleeding through walls from neighbours or distant music festivals makes me want to peel my skin off just to have something to distract my pain receptors with. It's not even the volume. It's the presence. 

When I was younger my sister played her music downstairs in the room beneath mine. It wasn't loud but it had bass. I kept telling her to turn it down because I did not understand the issue I had. I became so stressed from the noise that I got in the car and drove off. My parents kept calling me because I was the sensible child. I did not act this way. I couldn't take it. I needed to be elsewhere. I eventually calmed down and we talked. Nothing changed because we had no idea I was autistic and not bored of my sisters choice in music. 

I worry about that reaction. I worry about the way noise can trigger something in me that drives me to extreme measures to escape it. Thankfully my autism diagnosis has helped me see that I'm not being unreasonable. I have a disability and need to find ways to cope with a society not designed for me. 

I find I'm wearing noise cancelling headphones almost all the time now. Even at night. Big over ear headphones. I've tried ear plugs. They fall out and have a limited life span. Over ear headphones, Sony WH-1000 XM2s, oddly fine. I turn the noise cancelation on and drift off. Sometimes I'll use a white noise app like Dark Noise to play rain sounds. 

As I sit here and write this I'm wearing them. My wife is working next to me. Is it weird to work 9-5 next to your partner wearing noise cancelling headphones? Not at all. Thankfully my wife is understanding of my needs and I am of hers. We both do different jobs and these headphones allow me to share an office while having my own space. 

What about outside the office? I'm not wearing them while we cook, eat or watch TV am I? Only as needed. Sometimes the noise from the neighbours is just too much and it is easier to pop a pair of headphones on than discuss the issue with them. This is maybe a failing on my part. I assume responsibility for everything. Noise from next door is something I need to block out. Knowing how easily I can hear them means I need to be super quiet. I know how disruptive it can be to live with a noise sensitivity issue so I don't want to cause anyone any pain. Flip side is I'm stressing all day over any noise I make. 

Speakers in the house are set with the bass to low just incase it is disruptive. We have multiple Google Home Mini's in pairing mode so the sound can be synchronised around the house at a calm level instead of turned up loud when you're in another room. The Apple HomePod mini has been problematic because in an attempt to be smart it has 0 controls. Due to our kitchen design if you stand in one spot the bass is awfully boomy but if you stand in another spot it is fine. Does that translate through the walls? I don't know and I'm often on edge listening to music or a podcast on it. Watching TV causes similar levels of anxiety. I would love to enjoy the bass from a modern film without stressing or ask the HomePod to turn up the music while cooking. But I can't because I know how debilitating uncontrollable noise is. If I want to enjoy those sounds I use my headphones, alone. 

While it can be lonely noise cancelling headphones have been life changing for me. In the before times when we went out I could wear them on the bus, in loud bars/cafes or any environment where I needed to turn the world down. They are incredible. I could work in a cafe and not worry about the bass from their badly calibrated sound system annoying me or people talking. I could enjoy a different working view while having space to myself. It gave me control. 

There are noise cancelling headphones that have a pass-through feature to allow certain frequencies in and not others. On Apple AirPods Pro its called "Transparency". On my Sony's its called "Ambient Sound". There have been times when the neighbours music makes me want to rip my arm off and use it to smash their hifi. I don't. Mainly because I like my arms. What I can do with the headphones is block everything but voice. This allows me to enjoy the TV show, podcast or conversation with my wife without becoming overloaded by noise. They're not perfect but they offer a temporary break from the noise. 

I have been wondering if noise cancelling headphones can help with another aspect of noise sensitivity. In some environments I hear everything at once. I find it incredibly difficult to talk to people in a bar environment for example. I cannot filter out one voice amongst many. While driving on a motorway I struggled to process what my wife was saying because of the car noise. Going for a walk I couldn't hear what my wife was saying due to the wind. I wondered if it would be possible to use noise cancelling headphones in these scenarios to filter out everything but voice? Possible yes but socially ok? If I put headphones on while someone was talking to me that might appear rude. They see headphones. I see hearing aid. 

The technology is incredible though. Using an accessibility feature in iOS 14 called "Live Listen" I could wear Apple AirPods Pro, enable noise cancellation and put the phone by my wife while we talk. I could do this in a busy resturant blocking out noise and hearing my wife perfectly. I would be liberated from anxiety and fear of overload. The freedom of choosing what I want to deal with and what I want to ignore. It's an accessibility feature for noisy spaces. 

People often recommend cheaper headphones to me. Why buy expensive Apple ones or slightly cheaper Sony ones? I've stopped seeing headphones as headphones. They're more like AR (Augmented Reality) devices now offering me the ability to control my hearing. I don't think abled bodied people have any idea. I know I didn't until recently. It is a shame they are expensive, £200-250 and essentially a subscription service because of the limited battery life. They are absolutely life changing and essential though. 

All this got me wondering about the future of AR technology. Would I one day accept a procedure to augment my body to have a noise cancelation implant? If it is this important to me surely it is the next logical step? Would I trust the technology knowing how flakey technology generally is? It is an interesting question. I can see this coming. 20 years in the future maybe? Ghost in the Shell style augments. I carry my AirPods everywhere as the carry case is tiny. I wear my noise cancelling headphones most days to control my environment. I am dependant on technology to prevent autistic overload from noise. Would I augment my body to have a permeant solution? Version 2? I think so. 


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“Be bold. Be brave. Be courageous.” Christopher Pike, Captain USS Discovery.

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