The Paradox of Hearing Loss: Noise Can Be Painful

I was stunned by the brilliance of the production. But I was also stunned by how familiar — and how literally painful — I found the play’s depiction of high-functioning autism, or Asperger’s. This production may come as close as possible to allowing a person to experience the sensory vulnerability of Asperger’s. And, as it turns out, that experience is a lot like severe hearing loss.

Like many people with hearing loss, I also have hyperacusis, a sensitivity to loud noise, sometimes called recruitment. So, apparently, does Christopher, the boy at the center of the play. And I have a tendency to vertigo, also a sensory reaction.

Man covering his ears

Act 2 depicts teenager Christopher’s experience trying to find his mother in London. He travels from his father’s house in the suburbs to London by train, and then by tube to his mother’s house. The entire trip is seen from Christopher’s perspective. Confusion, noise, flashing lights, more noise, more confusion, more flashing lights.

I took out my hearing aid and turned off my cochlear implant to try to mitigate the sensory wallop. I put my hands over my eyes. I tried not to think about vertigo, or the many people between me and the aisle.

I’m a healthy, fairly well-adjusted adult who just happens to have severe hearing loss, hyperacusis and vertigo. Assaulted with noise and lights, eyes and ears recoil from the stimulus. The sensory overload extends to sensitivity to touch; it even affects my digestive system.

This performance was captioned, thanks to the Theater Development Fund’s Accessibility Programs — TDF-TAP, allowing people with hearing loss to understand the dialogue, so there were many with hearing issues in the audience. I wonder if any of them had the same reaction.

At least one viewer with Asperger’s recognized her condition on the stage (at a London production). The anonymous blogger Aspertypical discussed her reaction in fascinating detail. Despite some flaws, she wrote, the play “does a fantastic job of bringing to life a way of viewing the world not previously available to those not on the spectrum.” It also does a good job of showing a way of hearing the world that’s not usually available to those with normal hearing.

Photo: KovaksAlex/istock

This post first appeared on AARP: Healthy Hearing. Click on the link to see an embedded video from the show, which shows both its inventiveness and its sensory assault. It’s at the bottom of the post.

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