Time and again I’m struck by the overlap between autism as it manifests itself and ABI (acquired brain injury). Often I can relate to the coping mechanisms that autistic people choose in order to get through the day or deal with a particular environment. One of the coping activities I read about recently is the choice to go non-verbal.
When I am in a social setting I might be verbally engaged for ten or fifteen minutes. When things get too busy, when the conversation wanders and requires more effort on my part I will experience a level of neural fatigue. At that point I will often choose to go non-verbal. I am still engaged with the conversation, but I will begin to conserve my energy and respond by nodding or raising an eyebrow or some other non-verbal cues. Should my neural fatigue increase I will look for an inconspicuous way to exit from the space.
Social interaction requires varying degrees of cognitive functioning. Over time the cognitive demands will create a level of neural fatigue that I need to address. The sooner I acknowledge the neural fatigue and address it the shorter my recovery time will be.
When I’m in a social environment and have reached my limit I need a space that will help me recover. Napping is usually the least helpful option, though spending time in a quiet room is sometimes the best that’s available.
Indoor sounds tend to have an echo or reverberation. The reverberation that most people don’t seem to notice, makes it hard for my brain to relax. Attempts to block out sounds and impressions puts additional demands on my brain.
When I’m outdoors there are so many sounds at a variety of decibel levels. However, it isn’t the decibel level that stands out, but rather the way different sounds flow together. Sounds are somewhat muted in their own ways.
Being outdoors in itself isn’t enough. It’s most beneficial to be away from intrusive mechanical sounds. Mechanical sounds such as commuter traffic, heavy truck, gas powered lawnmowers are jarring. The noise level varies greatly and can be unpredictable and startling.
Being outdoors in a natural environment is the most helpful for recovery. The natural sounds tend to be more mellow than mechanical sounds. However, the call of a crow or a blue jay can be quite raucous. While a heavy truck might create a jarring sound, a screeching brake or an engine backfiring, a crow or a blue jay might initially be raucous, but the follow up sounds as they begin to fade have a predictable pattern.
Sounds in a natual setting can better be compared to a symphony. The sounds have a gentleness to them, they have sense of belonging in that space. It’s the gentleness and predictablity of the sound that allows my brain to relax, to recover from some of the fatigue.
Sounds in nature are somewhat predictable. Each habitat, made up of a certain mix of wildlife, has its own symphony of sounds. The sounds have their own cadence as the sounds modulate, changing in intensity or volume. At the same time the sounds are not repetitive. That also contributes to a more restful state.
Natural sounds for Neurotypical people
A study was done some time ago to measure the benefits of walking to reduce stress. One group was assigned to walk for 20 minutes a day along city streets. The second group was assigned to walk for 20 minutes in a park or nature preserve. The study concluded that walking in a park or nature preserve had a much greater impact on lowering the level of stress than walking along a city street.
Sometimes I find that my ABI sensitivities can be used like a ‘canary in a coalmine’. I develop habits or find environments that are critical to my quality of life and my ability to recover more quickly. What is critical for me to function better, often are the same habits or environments that are helpful in improving other people’s quality of life.