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Why Headphones Mean I Need Space as Someone With Asperger's

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Dear Neurotypicals:

I know and deeply understand that most of you mean well, that some of you care about me in ways that sometimes I just don’t see, and that a few of your concerns about me come from the right place. But please, please don’t talk to me while I’m wearing those big black headphones I carry around all the time. I need them. I really need them. Here’s why:

1. Loud noises.

People on the autism spectrum often find it hard to discern between front and background noises, which means every single sound can become a trigger for anxiety, enough to cause a meltdown. This is especially true in places where there are already large concentrations of people.

2. I can’t talk right now.

Having my headphones on is not only a mute button for the outside world, it is a mute button for you. No offense, but when I’m wearing them, I don’t want to talk to you. I can’t afford to talk to you since I’m already struggling with sensory overload. Unless it’s a truly urgent matter, please refrain from getting too close.

3. I need to focus.

If I have my headphones on, I might be really focusing on some other task, or on my thoughts. You have no idea how daunting it is to start to write this and listen to my mom’s TV noises at the same time, for example. And again, discerning which sounds to focus on can be really hard to handle.

4. I’m rehearsing.

I’m a musician, so if you see me completely immersed in what I’m hearing, it’s because I’m actually practicing. I have absolute pitch — many of us with Asperger’s syndrome do — so I don’t need an instrument. I’m working with my memory.

5. I need my space.

Look, sometimes just being awake and alive in this modern world is a crushing experience, not only for me, but I bet for you too. Sometimes the bubble I lock myself in when I use my headphones is my only safe place, the only setting in which I’m truly comfortable. You show a lot of respect and compassion by just leaving a person on the spectrum alone. We really value that. And when we’re not overwhelmed or overstimulated, we’ll surely talk to you. We love deep conversations as much as anyone else, and we appreciate the possibility of having new friends. And trust me, people with autism can be some of the most loyal, honest and fun friends you can have. Our process is just different. And we’re grateful when you respect that.

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Getty image by Maja Mitrovic.

Originally published: December 13, 2017
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