On Sensory Empathy

by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

In an interview on NPR, Temple Grandin talked about a lack of sensory empathy among non-autistic people:

Normal people have an incredible lack of empathy. They have good emotional empathy, but they don’t have much empathy for the autistic kid who is screaming at the baseball game because he can’t stand the sensory overload. Or the autistic kid having a meltdown in the school cafeteria because there’s too much stimulation. I’m frustrated with the inability of normal people to have sensory empathy. They can’t seem to acknowledge these different realities because they’re so far away from their own experiences.

Because of my acute auditory sensitivity, I’ve always had difficulties with ambient sound, especially in the spring and summer, when the “noisy season” begins. Neighbors run buzz-saws. Construction projects get underway. People mow their lawns. Drivers speed down the street blasting loud music with their car windows open. Motorcycles start up at 7:30 in the morning.

It’s painful and exhausting to my system. And yet, most people cannot intuitively put themselves in my shoes and understand why. They cannot take the perspective of my experience. They do not realize that what I need from them is sensory empathy.

An example: One beautiful summer day, my daughter Ashlynne and I decided to go out for some mother-daughter time, and we set off for the bead store. We had chosen to go there because the place is very spacious, and I thought I’d look for some interesting beads for my art projects. Unfortunately, I’d forgotten that they play Incredibly Loud Music there. It was so loud that when we walked in, I immediately stopped and said to Ashlynne, “Wait, wait! I need my earplugs! Now!” Fortunately, I keep an extra pair in my bag, but in my agitation, I couldn’t find them. Ashlynne offered to hold the bag open, and I finally located them. My hands were shaking, but I got the earplugs in.

The music was so loud that I could still hear it quite clearly, so I asked Ashlynne to ask the man at the counter to turn it down. He did. A little. I could still hear the music, and clearly, he had no idea of how it was affecting me.

Listening to loud music and talking to someone at the same time is impossible for me. Listening to loud music and and trying to think straight about anything is usually out of the question, and about ten minutes after entering the store, I realized that I’d reached my limit. I just wanted to cry. Why do people have to play such loud music? I thought. Why is that fun? If the place were quiet, I could have spent hours there.

But of course, the man at the counter seemed to be enjoying the music, and no one except my daughter had any idea of how I was experiencing the environment. So I took the beads I had found and went up to the counter to pay for them — at which point the man at the counter said, “Didn’t you mark down how much each set of beads costs?”

Oh no.

I said, “No, I didn’t see a pad and pencil for that,” so he gave me one. And then, I had to go back around this large store looking for these tiny beads, and I thought I was just going to break down and weep. And again, no one except my daughter had any idea about how the environment was affecting me. No one could read my body language, my subtle nonverbal cues, the look in my eyes, or anything else.

My daughter helped me find all the prices, and then we got out of there.

After this experience, I began to think about what the world would be like if people had sensory empathy —  if they could read the body language of autistic people properly, and if they could understand how acutely we experience the world. What if every public building and private business had to make its environment accessible for autistic people, with an understanding of our sensory experience?

Here’s how it might look:

1. No public building or private business would have Incredibly Loud Music, and all TVs would be turned off. After all, who can think straight in all that noise? In a world of sensory empathy, people would use headphones to listen to music in public.

2. Aisles in all buildings would be wide enough so that two people could occupy opposite sides of an aisle without inadvertently touching each other.

3. When in a public building or private business, people would use their inside voices. When outdoors, people would refrain from loud cursing, the uttering of racial and ethnic slurs, and other forms of aggressive verbal behavior.

4. People would not use cell phones within earshot of another person, especially when having private and emotional conversations.

5. Each place of business would post the food smells or other fragrances one might encounter upon entering.

6. If a neighbor wished to use a lawn-mower, chainsaw, or other power tool, he or she would tell others in advance, so that autistic people might not plan to spend the afternoon sitting on our porches, enjoying the peace and quiet.

7. Everyone would understand that it takes our bodies awhile to calm down after unexpectedly loud noises, and they would take care to let us know when they are about to embark on loud construction or demolition projects, so that we might go inside before they begin.

8. Every restaurant would have a quiet zone for dining.

9. Every building would have a separate, quiet waiting room.

10. No autistic person would be derided or harassed for stimming in public.

It would be a peaceful, considerate, and empathetic world. It would be the world of my dreams.

About the Author: Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg is a wife, mother, writer, and artist. She was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at the age of 50. A version of this piece first appeared on her blog, Journeys with Autism.

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9 thoughts on “On Sensory Empathy

  1. Alicia Lile says:

    Great post, I saw that on the original blog but I love reading again.
    I’m still grieving the fact that now the bookstores I used to go to have really loud music. Even ear plugs can’t save me.

    • Rachel says:

      Alicia, have you asked the people at the bookstore to turn the music down in order to make the space accessible to you? I’ve had some very good luck with that in a couple of my favorite stores in town. When I frame it as an accessibility issue, and explain that it’s based on a physical disability, it seems to help.

  2. bjforshaw says:

    Thank you for the interview link – very interesting. I hadn’t considered the question of empathy outside the context of emotion: it was one of those “Aha!” moments when I realised that most (NT) people have this huge blind spot. I think I understand them a little better now.

    • Rachel says:

      I know what you mean. For a lot of my life, I was really careful about not playing music without asking people first, or not shouting someone’s name in a public space, assuming that the music might interfere with their ability to concentrate, or that my shouting might startle them. Imagine my surprise to find out how many people actually don’t care!

      I still ask about the music though, and I don’t shout, just in case there is someone present who would find it difficult to be around. But most people just look at me as though they’re puzzled about why I ask about these things at all.

  3. Marlene says:

    I go to Sizzler and the music is way to loud and it is the new country , grates on my nerves the whole time. I don’t usually have issues with loud noises, but for some reason this place does. It makes me uneasy, on edge and grumpy. Why continue to go there? Its the only place to go out that has a salad bar, and my family likes it there.

    • Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg says:

      It’s no wonder more kids have trouble holding it together in restaurants these days. When I was a child, restaurants never had loud music, or TVs on, or anything like that. Going to a restaurant was supposed to be a relaxing experience. 🙂

  4. Stephanie says:

    Rachel, that would be a wonderful world! Some additions:
    * Emergency vehicles and other warning sirens that didn’t risk causing other emergencies by “shutting down” some people’s brains (like mine).
    * Packaging that limited smells instead of filling the aisle with them.
    * Public seating that accommodates more than one kind of “sitting formation,” so that those who (like me) sit in a particular way to increase concentration can do so comfortably. (I sit with both legs crossed beneath me during class and other heavily-listening times, because the deep pressure helps me concentrate.)

    I agree that sensory processing challenges are poorly understood by the general public and by those who design public spaces. A little thought and understanding could go a long way to welcoming those of us who struggle with such things into these spaces.

  5. Sue says:

    I am loving this blog and the quality of the writing that is posted here.

    Hi Rachel. My name is Sue. I’m a bit of a highly sensitive person so I TOTALLY understand where you are coming from. I look around at these places and wonder how on earth other people are coping with it. They drive me spare.

    I agree, I think more understanding of the body language of autistic people is DESPERATELY needed.

    Have you ever seen those snoezelen rooms, the multi-sensory ones that are used for therapy for people with autism? They are meant to be calming, and some of them look wonderfully so, but to me others look like complete and utter sensory overload! 🙂

  6. Ettina says:

    “Have you ever seen those snoezelen rooms, the multi-sensory ones that are used for therapy for people with autism? They are meant to be calming, and some of them look wonderfully so, but to me others look like complete and utter sensory overload!”

    I have tried a Snoezelen room. It’s not at all overloading, for one simple reason – the client has *complete control* over the sensations. You are free to turn things on and off. The Snoezelen room I use has a flashing light thing in it, and the very first thing I do in there is to unplug it.

    Speaking of sensory empathy, I have a friend with CP who used to have an autistic classmate in high school, and I was blown away when she warned me that a particular elevator was going to make a loud ‘bing!’ as it arrived and I might want to cover my ears. Even though she has no sensory issues, her experience with autism and her general attitude towards disability accessibility gave her a level of sensory empathy I’d only seen in my parents before then.

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