This is why you think I’m not paying attention.
I get this a lot. I’m often asked a question that has caught me off guard. My response? I stare at the person open-mouthed like a carp until I utter the phrase “huh…what did you say?” To which the person usually laughs and teases that I wasn’t paying attention. The truth is, I was. Autistic people are hyper in-tune with our surroundings and are aware of the minuscule details that others miss. So why does it appear that we are often absent minded?
The answer is that because we are so hyper aware of our surroundings: background conversations, loud music, strong smells, bright lights, brash wallpaper, that our brain’s capacity to absorb and respond to your impromptu question is pushed to its limit, resulting in a “huh?”. We definitely heard what you said, but the time it takes for us to comprehend and respond to your question (albeit in a socially acceptable manner) takes a lot more brain power than it would do for a neurotypical person.
So why is this? It’s to do with audio-processing. Auditory Processing Disorder (APD) is where a person has difficulty understanding sounds, including spoken words. You don’t have to be autistic to have Auditory Processing Disorder; however, most of the autistic population do have it. We find it difficult to understand the following: people speaking in noisy places, people with strong accents or fast talkers, similar sounding words and spoken instruction (NHS). It’s not a hearing problem — we have no trouble hearing the sounds, but the trouble lies in the processing of sounds.
Why am I bringing this to your attention? Because I’m sick of being mistaken for ‘slow’ or ‘away with the fairies’ which is some of the feedback I have received from past employers and friends. In fact, it’s ableist to think that everyone processes sounds at the same speed. It’s also ableist to call people out who do not respond quickly to your questions. There are a number of things running through an autistic person’s mind when you catch us off guard: visual sensory input, auditory information and how to form a ‘socially acceptable’ response. It can be distressing for us because living in a fast-paced society means that people expect quick communication. Sometimes we freeze because we know that’s the unrealistic expectation and we often cannot meet it.
I used to brush off these embarrassing moments with a laugh and a ‘blonde moment’ label, but I realised I’m doing myself and others with APD a disservice. Why should we be made to speed up our processing? How about inviting others to slow their communication down? I’m practising ways to educate people about Auditory Processing Disorder in autistic people. One thing I am learning to do is to say this phrase, “I need time to think about your question, before I can respond as my processing speed is different to yours”. It’s a mouthful and comes across a bit blunt, but at least it saves me from embarrassment, while managing the other person’s expectations.