Sounds and Sleep

Charlie walking on a rainy, gray day  I got to my classroom for my 9am Elementary Latin class about 10 minutes early.  A couple of my students were already present, sitting quietly.

And quiet the classroom remained as the other students slowly came in, and took their seats. Usually there's a bit of talking and buzz but the room remained quiet until I started talking in a general way about our weekend, the sunny Saturday and the cool gray Sunday. One student did note that he'd spent most of Sunday sleeping and I mentioned that Charlie had done the same. As I looked out at the still-gray sky, it occurred to me, this just looks like sleeping weather.

That Sunday nap did lead to Charlie having a post-11pm bedtime Sunday night meaning that (1) other members of this household also got to sleep and (2) Charlie had a slow time of it waking up on Monday. 

Jim and I seem, at long last, to have gotten the tricks of Waking Up Soundly Sleeping Adolescent Boy With Minimal Language and Absolutely No Parental Threats or Ultimata About Being Late For School. I turned on the radio, set the iPod touch alarm and placed it by Charlie on his bed, and went about making what I like to call 'natural noise'—the inevitable sounds that arise when boiling water for coffee, putting the finishing touches on Charlie's lunch and packing his schoolbag, using various bathroom appliances, walking up and down the wooden stairs (ours, being as old as this 1920s house, creak). I sighted movement under the blanket at about a quarter to 8 as I left to catch the train, and Jim gave me a text-by-text update of their progress, ending with a note about dropping a very good boy off at school with five minutes to 9.

We just started all these texting exchanges a couple of months ago and they've become a preferred way to exchange information when Charlie's around. It was last year that we noticed him putting his hands over his ears on hearing us talking, especially when things got animated and opinionated. It didn't matter if the subject was various current events or '(extended) family business' or a bad day teaching—if the topic was anything but Charlie himself—we'd often see him getting agitated, from listening to what seemed simply to be too much talking. I confess, Jim and I are both quite capable of doing this on our own; together, it can be quite a lot of talking. 

Charlie's speech being limited, people tend to think that he's not paying attention (also because he often doesn't display the expected signs that show someone is listening, whether nodding or making eye contact, etc.). I rather just assume that he's always listening and very affected by everything that he hears. So at transition times (getting ready before school, for instance) we've cut down a lot on the chit chat. I'd say that Charlie has some sort of auditory processing disorder. It's described as 'little-known' in a recent New York Times post, but it's been a fact of life for a long time for Charlie and us. I do suspect that he doesn't (always) hear sounds and words as many do, and that hearing and processing and understanding and responding to auditory stimuli are all separate, and not necessarily well-connected, steps for him. Extra sounds (especially in the form of human voices) seem to interfere (short circuit?) the process of, well, processing.

And I guess it shouldn't be a surprise that a boy with an affinity for music should have hearing so sensitive that he sleeps with his hands over his ears?

For to sleep Charlie went on Monday night, by around 8pm. He'd taken himself up to bed an hour earlier and told me "good night" with a big smile, as if he were just darned pleased to get to go to bed and stretch out. He'd had a good school day with a trip to grocery shop. After Jim picked him up, they did a bike ride in drizzle that became rain. Charlie was all showered and in a quite peaceful mood when I came home and that's how he stayed till he went to sleep. 

With, yes (even though Jim and I crept around quietly downstairs) his hands over his ears.

10 Responses to “Sounds and Sleep”
  1. emma says:

    The texting is a great idea – might try it myself! Dimitri doesn’t like too much chat either, I have the feeling he feels left out to some extent, but he is also upset if it’s a bit of an animated conversation, no matter what the subject.
    I didn’t realize the hands of the ears was such a new development, I wonder what changed?

  2. Regina says:

    I notice at dinner when my husband and I chat to each other too much that our daughter, possibly feeling left out of the conversation, has various tricks to point out that there’s a third person at the table. I’ve gotten better at antecedently remembering that and not being so impolite and creating our own mom-daughter conversation (feeding the hungry bee, as Kesey would put it).
    For raised voices she’s figured out her own very adaptive strategy – to put her arm around my shoulder and give me a big grin. I gotta admit, it’s really difficult to be keep up being irate or irritated when someone is doing that, and doing it so sincerely and honestly. The peacemaker.

  3. Elise says:

    The auditory issue is such a big deal. I can understand that Charlie would feel overwhelmed or even feel pain when there is something he can’t tolerate. My youngest always tells me that I talk too much and cries if the decible level in the house gets too hi. Ironically he also likes to listen o his music extremely loud. I used to think that it was teenage issues telling mom and dad to be quiet until I talked to some aspie friends and found that it really is part of the processing disorder. Texting is an interesting idea for when Charlie gets overwhelmed. I am going to see if I can implement that in some fashion in my own home. Maybe send directives to the boys instead of constant verbal reminders. It’s worth a shot.

  4. Something I truly love about the guys I know who have autism is the way they try so hard to take care of themselves (even if it is ineffective or terrible for us!). If more people understood about the importance of flapping,etc…! The image of Charlie sleeping with his hands over his ears brings tears to my eyes.

  5. Niksmom says:

    I laughed when I saw your tweet last night that we were both reading the article in NYT at the same time. 🙂
    You can have Charlie evaluated by an ENT or audiologist for APD. it would be important to know if he has it; there are (as you read!) wyas to deal with it.
    I often wonder about whether Nik has an auditory processing issue but have been told by ENT that they usually can’t diagnose until around the age of 8 or 9.
    Like Charlie, Nik does much better with music than with conversation.

  6. Jill says:

    This is a very thought-provoking post. I guess that to Charlie, much of the conversation around him sounds like the teacher’s voice in the old Charlie Brown specials: “Bwa wa wa wah muhw hwah…”
    If you and Jim aren’t talking about Charlie it must seem both boring and intrusive to your boy, just an endless stream of noise
    No wonder he puts his hands over his ears.
    I see several autistic kids in a teen day program doing the same thing when they’re at a local supermarket. The muzak and store announcements are pretty loud. There’s one that advertises chicken where a woman squawks like a hen, VERY loudly. It makes me flinch every time I hear it and there’s usually some cries of distress from the autistic kids when it comes on.
    There are times when silence really is golden.

  7. Sarah says:

    Auditory processing of language by people with Autism has been studied by Firth 1989 and Happe 1994. See Communication Issues in Autism and Asperger Syndrome: Do We Speak the Same Language by Olga Bogdashina, page 31.
    My very soon-to-be 13 year old son with Autism processes sounds and language like Charlie. It used to be very stressful for him to listen to people talking around him. This is because in “therapy” he was pressured to respond to much language he did not understand and became anxious that language brings with it inexplicable demands. Now that we have withdrawn many of the demands to respond to spoken language, he is able to let much crosstalk pass in peace.

  8. We get this, too. Whenever I have a conversation with anyone else, including my husband, Jack can’t take it. It looks like he’s just wanting attention and other people just don’t get the auditory part. I know Jack doesn’t process what we are saying because he asks me all the time: What are you talking about? Or he shouts Stop Talking! Because he’s so verbal, it’s very hard for people to understand that he’s simply not processing what he hears.

  9. Regina says:

    “I’d say that Charlie has some sort of auditory processing disorder.”
    Has he had a workup to diagnose and possibly to help develop a treatment plan?
    I just read that article and what I found at least as interesting was the comments which seemed to describe some screening procedures and potential therapy approaches.

  10. autismvox says:

    No formal work-up for APD. Yet! Programs like Earobics and some other auditory programs were tried with him when he was little with the usual mixed results! Will add this to my list…… in Charlie’s case, APD seems just to be part of the whole piece and puzzle of his language and communication. His _hearing_ seems to be fine, as far as last year’s audiology testing—
    but I’ve no doubt that language gets all jumbled to him, rather like someone learning a foreign language doesn’t get/hear/understand the whole picture when hearing that language spoken. As an example there’s the word “no” in English—and then in Mandarin, it’s “bu” and in Greek “oxi” etc., and one has to train and retrain one’s ear to hear all those when listening to those languages.
    (Speaking of Greek…… in ancient Greek, “no” is “ou” (rhymes with “Lou”) so, in my turtoise-like efforts to learn modern Greek, I’ve had to learn a new word and sound.)
    @Emma, Charlie’s been alternating hands on and off his ears of late. We walked past a lawnmower on our walk today and he didn’t have his hands over his ears, and then he put them up as we walked past—I guess he is learning not always to have to do it, perhaps?
    @Susan, I like how you put that, that our guys (and gals) have all these ways of taking care of themselves!
    @Jill, I’m wondering if the Muzak has something to do with Charlie not wanting to go into grocery stores. Can’t avoid the Muzak anywhere.
    The first step in texting was teaching Jim to text; it seemed so similar to email to him. But it’s certainly the best way to talk about really touchy subjects that need immediate attention, or are best addressed quickly so one doesn’t stew and simmer!

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