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Thread by @MiaSteinberg: "And now, a thread on auditory processing disorder, coping mechanisms, loud environments, and how to be accommodating and kind to people who […]"

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And now, a thread on auditory processing disorder, coping mechanisms, loud environments, and how to be accommodating and kind to people who have these issues.
This thread is dedicated to Elysian Coffee, which is one of the loudest fucking places I've ever encountered. I'll come back to them and their cacophonous interior design decisions in a bit. First, let's talk about what APD looks like, and why people with APD do certain things.
Disclaimer: these are my own experiences, and others will inevitably differ. I will speak in generalizations, but they are not universal. APD is co-morbid with many things, including ADHD, and can be hard to diagnose. Anyhow. Picture a group dinner at a crowded restaurant.
Is one of your friends zoning out of the conversation you're all having, or not hearing questions you ask them? Have they asked you to repeat yourself several times? Are sudden noises making them flinch? Are they interrupting others, or cutting people off?
Are they on their phone? When they put the phone down, do they seem irritable and impatient, maybe a little fidgety? Do they keep going back to their phone, over and over?
They're not being rude. They're trying to cope.
Now that I've started recognizing my APD for what it is, a lot of my reactions and behaviours in crowded places are finally making sense. Loud spaces aren't just loud for me; it's an active and exhausting process simply to be in them for an extended period of time.
I can't filter out the background noise of a crowded place like a restaurant. Every clang of dishes, every beep from a timer or phone, even the conversation at the next table—my brain treats all of these noises as equally important.
Trying to focus on a few voices out of the tsunami of noise is both mentally and physically exhausting. I start to yawn and space out, and it becomes even harder to focus. I strain to hear the conversation, and I concentrate so hard that sudden loud noises will startle me.
If we're in a loud enough room, all I might hear from my friends is gibberish. Just garbled noise. It's intensely disconcerting to have to ask someone to repeat their name three times because all I've heard is "ayeeuh". Are you Andrea? Brianna? Alexandra? I have no fucking clue.
Eventually, the sensory overload becomes too much, and my brain just gives up. It's too tiring. That's when I end up reaching for my phone, because if I can't follow one thread of noise in the cacophony, I can at least focus on something else and block it all out for a bit.
But being on your phone during social dinners with your friends is rude. It's been ingrained into me. So I feel guilty, even though, in that moment, being able to concentrate on ANYTHING is a blessed relief from the frustration that builds and builds when I'm in a loud place.
I just had coffee with my in-laws and was trying to avoid looking at my phone, but the need was almost compulsive towards the end of our meeting. Every time I put my phone down and tried to focus on the conversation, I felt irritable and agitated, so I'd pick up the phone again.
It was not "I am addicted to my social media because I'm a horrid millennial" irritation. It wasn't "this specific thing that I can identify and articulate is irritating me"; it was irritation as a neurological symptom. That's the only way I can really describe it.
I've started wearing earplugs in loud places, and I've found that while I still struggle to hear things sometimes, I avoid experiencing this slow background build of irritation, like a low-grade fever, that constantly drains my mental battery.
This brings us back to Elysian Coffee, which is an angular room made of concrete and drywall, decorated with hard wood tables and chairs, with a big espresso machine in the middle and a kitchen made of metal right behind it. No soft surfaces to absorb any noises, dig?
I couldn't eat while I was in there; I didn't realize how hungry I was until I was half a block away, because so much of my brain power had been dedicated to trying in vain to hear what was being said by people sitting right next to me. And I was wearing earplugs!
I jumped at every clang and crash; I could feel my shoulders tense up whenever their grill timer beeped. At one point someone ordered a soy milk latte and the screeching growl of the steamer wand made me want to rip my hair out. I couldn't focus. I still feel shaky and upset.
It was an auditory nightmare, and I will never go back. That particular space is constructed in such a way that all sounds just bounce around and become louder, and what's irritatingly noisy for some people is a recipe for incomprehensible frustration for those with APD.
So! What can you, a person without APD, do to help your APD friends? Here are a few suggestions—again, these are my two cents:
1) Let us be on our phones/doodle/read if we need to. Sorry, but it genuinely does help! It's a small moment of focus in a very distracting environment.
2) For me personally, I've realized that I have to sit at one end of a big table full of people. As soon as I'm in the middle, I end up trying to flit between two or three conversations, and it's not fun at all. Sometimes sitting in a particular spot can cut down on the noise.
3) If we're zoning out, please don't be offended. Ditto for if we ask you to repeat yourself a few times.
4) Folks with APD have a lot of trouble parsing multiple audio streams at once. If we're watching TV, wait for us to pause before talking to us. It helps a lot!
5) I listen to music when I'm out and about because it is one focused form of auditory stimulation. Sometimes I'll wear earplugs in public, especially if studying. So if you say hi to me but I'm not in your direct line of sight, I may not hear you!
6) Speaking of direct line of sight: English subtitles on TV and movies is a godsend. Having a visual reference to know what's being said can be extremely helpful. So if you're hosting a movie night, consider turning on subtitles if someone asks for them!
APD has been called auditory dyslexia, and that's a helpful way to think about it. It's not a problem with our ears; it's a dysfunction of the central nervous system, where the brain struggles to interpret sounds. Realizing I had issues with this has been life-changing.
In conclusion: as always, be kind, believe people when they speak their truth, and don't assume that your perceptions are the default. And for fuck's sake please put some cushions in your pretentious cafe.
ADDENDUM! I forgot a few tips.
7) If someone is just starting to wear earplugs in crowded places, they may speak quieter or louder than normal, because they need to recalibrate their internal volume control for their voice. If they consent to getting feedback, please give it!
8) Related: we struggle with internal volume control in general, especially in loud situations, and being told we're talking too loud can be a super upsetting emotional trigger. Your friend might ask you to signal them if they're being too loud; please follow their lead on that.
Otherwise, recognize that telling someone with APD that they're speaking too loud is something to do gently and with a lot of kindness. It's hideously embarrassing and something that I personally am basically always afraid of.
Further addenda:
- please by all means retweet this thread if you want to
- please let me know if I've been insensitive or ableist in my language here
- tip jar: PayPal.me/miasteinberg
Further further addendum: for the past five hours, my mentions have been literally nothing but "oh my god this is me." The prevalence of audio processing issues in adults under 55 is basically unknown right now.
Next day additions!
1) my mentions are still overwhelmingly full of people going "oh my god, it's me". So you are not alone in this. Like I said above, the prevalence of APD in adults is not really known right now, and it has comorbidities with ADHD and autism.
2) Regarding earplugs: the foam ones you can get at the pharmacy have been useful for me in the past (I literally bought a $20 container of like 200 of them when I was in grad school!), but they tend to dampen everything. Reusable earplugs, made for musicians, are the way to go.
2a) Here are the ones I've been using lately in everyday situations. They're about $15. If you're looking to try reusable earplugs, these are a good place to start! Much thanks to @Texan_Reverend for helping me choose some :-) etymotic.com/consumer/heari…
3) A lot of folks have asked about getting a formal diagnosis. I don't actually have one, and a lot of others don't either. @strabd talked about why:
APD isn't something that's treated with medication; there are therapies that can help, especially for children, but from my research, the suggested treatments tend to be adaptive stuff like earplugs, subtitles, and environmental awareness.
While your mileage about self-diagnosis may vary, for my own situation, I looked at APD the same way I did my seasonal affective disorder: the worst case scenario would involve me buying something I didn't use and enjoying the placebo effect. That, for me, was an acceptable risk.
3) Here are some amazing resources that people have pointed me towards (links in original tweets):
A place that makes audio filters for kids to use:
4) Here's the unrolled thread: threadreaderapp.com/thread/1021882…
5) People have talked/asked about hearing tests that come back showing no problems. But APD is a problem with the central nervous system.
The thing about audio tests is that they look for deficits in the ears/hearing system. But our ears are totally fine, the same way someone with dyslexia may have really good eyesight; it's that our brains can't properly process that sensory input.
6) I've received refreshingly little backlash, but for the record: if you're dismissing this as an invented malady by Us Pesky Millennials b/c we have no real problems, then congrats on being super rude to complete strangers because they dared to *checks notes* wear earplugs
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