The Sonic Bliss of Quintessential Autistic Gear: Noise Cancelling Headphones13 min read

When someone who has gone undiagnosed most of their life realizes that they’re autistic, there’s a period of unpacking every perception and way of existing to realize that– no, in fact, most people don’t experience [ insert almost anything here ] the same way you do.

Or, maybe they do experience something the same way, but much less intensely. One very glaring example is when late-diagnosed musician Johnny Profane realized that he has to actually rewind and relive experiences to remember them. It was while reading Johnny’s article that I realized I was the same way— and all the emotional and cognitive resources consumed by memory weren’t so brutally expended by most people recalling an event.

I have these kinds of epiphanies daily, but the most powerful to date was the moment I put on the right noise-cancelling headphones.

Autistic Sensory Experiences

I did a lot of reading before deciding on the right headphones, but the thing that most sold me was some autistic audiophiles on a forum talking about Sennheisers. I read every description of every headphone from every recommended brand from every blog I could find, then ultimately chose to buy Sennheiser headphones that promised “spatial” sound.

Most people wouldn’t empathize with why “spatial” is so important to me. Like many autistics, I have lateralization issues in the brain– that is, there is atypical connectivity between the right and left hemispheres. I’m also dyslexic and cross-dominant. This essentially means that gremlins wired my brain as a practical joke, and it’s almost like the left and right sides of my body are in a constant battle to coordinate, well, everything. Even sound.

I have a hard time understanding if something I’ve heard came from my right or left. Hell, I have a hard time understanding left and right, period. I also can’t discriminate how far away a sound is, and I can’t filter background noise.

What’s more, my vestibular system– the system responsible for balance— is so under-responsive that it’s the equivalent of being blind or deaf; therefore, my sense of balance is contingent on my vision and my hearing. If everything is moving too fast, if there are too many sounds, I just become so dislodged from balance and physical space that it’s dizzying enough to actually cause me to faint. I have to sit down a lot, especially in loud and busy public places.

Then, there’s the synesthesia. Synesthesia happens when someone experiences more than one sense at a time with sensory input. I have multiple types of synesthesia. I hear in color and sometimes– in the best times– I see these glorious grids with bursting colors that look like space nebula or landscapes, ocean waves crashing against cliff sides or forests of ancient cedar trees.

I also feel movement with the right sounds, like the drop after cresting the apex of a roller coaster. It’s amazing when it happens, and I pursue those moments like an adrenaline junkie.

Sometimes, there are golden sparks. The unadulterated joy that I experience during these punctuated flashes make the existential sensory suffering of everyday life as an autistic worth it. I wouldn’t change my sensory profile if given the option, and I can thank Sennheiser for that.

A Spiritual Experience

When my Sennheiser headphones arrived, I waited until I was alone. This was the quintessential gear for autistic people, and I wanted to have space to close my eyes and not need to hear anything else. I decided to start with an orchestral recording of a Pink Floyd song which had caused a pretty strong synesthetic response for me before.

So, with my house empty and my eyes closed, I pressed play.

At first, it was so shocking that I had a hard time not looking behind me. In fact, I did. I jumped up out of my chair and scanned the space behind me. And beside me. I ducked.

I had never heard with such clarity, and sound had never made such sense before. It never seemed to come from directions. Sound had just existed as this cloudy morass of analog radio waves, and I had always existed as a befuddled antenna unable to tell the source of the signals I received. Now, it seemed as if I were lying in the middle of the Slovenian Philharmonic, and I could tell from where the sounds were coming, could parse out every individual instrument and every note in layers.

About sixty seconds into the song, the music crescendoed, and all of the tension left my body. All of it. There was nothing left to even support my own body, and I collapsed to the floor in a crumpled heap. I wept through quaking sobs and uncontrollable laughter. Every pore on my limbs and torso turned itself inside out and every hair stood up as if I’d become electrified by the magic of what I was experiencing.

It was the first time in 38 years of living that I felt no stress at all.

Autistic people have a relationship with language and sound that is unique, and novelist Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf captures best what happened to me, exactly, as if I wrote it myself. There’s no fiction in this passage:

After two or three notes of the piano the door was opened of a sudden to the other world. I sped through heaven and saw God at work. I suffered holy pains. I dropped all my defences and was afraid of nothing in the world. I accepted all things and to all things I gave up my heart. It did not last very long, a quarter of an hour perhaps; but it returned to me in a dream at night, and since, through all the barren days, I caught a glimpse of it now and then. Sometimes for a minute or two I saw it clearly, threading my life like a divine and golden track. But nearly always it was blurred in dirt and dust. Then again it gleamed out in golden sparks as though never to be lost again and yet was soon quite lost once more.

And, from Herman Melville (author of Moby Dick), in his novel, Pierre: Or the Ambiguities:

Instantly the room was populous with sounds of melodiousness, and mournfulness, and wonderfulness; the room swarmed with the unintelligible but delicious sounds. The sounds seemed waltzing in the room; the sounds hung pendulous like glittering icicles from the corners of the room; and fell upon him with a ringing silveryness; and were drawn up again to the ceiling, and hung pendulous again, and dropt down upon him again with the ringing silveryness. Fire-flies seemed buzzing in the sounds; summer-lightnings seemed vividly yet softly audible in the sounds.

I’m not a religious person, but this was the spiritual and transformative magnetism of synesthesia and sound– when the right formula, like divine mathematical engineering, brought my senses into alignment.

I’d tried on high-end (to me, though they were really mid-range) headphones before, but something was different with the Sennheisers. The distinction was in the way the sound was distributed left-to-right, and with the timing and resonant contours, that fleshed out this full-bodied spatial soundscape for me.

It might have been the first time in my life that breathing was ever easy, and I hadn’t even realized how hard it was until then. After the initial shock and emotional reaction dissolved over a few days of manic revelry, it became clear how much easier they made my life. I could navigate the world without dizziness because sound wasn’t so disorienting. They empowered me to be more active.

I wasn’t constantly startled by every sound no one else noticed, and somehow it helped me to better coordinate the left and right sides of my body. Again, this is only something I’ve experienced with Sennheiser, which led me to reach out to their engineering department (more on that shortly).

I wasn’t alone.

The Autistic Community Responds

Using the hashtag #AskingAutistics, I took to Twitter and Facebook to ask autistic people about their experiences the first time they tried on a good set of noise-cancelling headphones. Here are some of their responses (some are paraphrased or edited for clarity):

  • It felt like I was turning the world’s volume down to a more tolerable level… Glorious.
  • I cried for an hour! The relief was more profound than I could have imagined.
  • Astonishment. I had NO idea I was struggling with noise until the noise was gone. I never, ever go to public places without them now. I have SO many more spoons without having to fight to focus.

  • It set me free. I am able to participate in a lot more social events typical for people my age (pubs, clubs, and political protests).
  • Oh my G-d, it was magical. They’re like sunglasses for your ears!!! I never leave the house without mine now.
  • I cried. It finally gave me some power over my surroundings.
  • The very first time? I was in Curry’s and tried a pair. I felt so emotional. It was like sucking all of the noise out of my head and sending it away. It was absolute bliss, and I had to buy them. I didn’t have to process all of the noise for the first time ever. I wondered if that’s how NT’s felt. I could concentrate and hear myself think.

I actually cried in solidarity when I read that one: I wondered if that’s how NT’s (neurotypicals) felt. I could relate hard to all of these, but that is the beauty of disability accommodations: being able to feel a peace that you didn’t know was even possible with the right supports.

  • It’s like taking a deep breath after coming up for air when swimming. Massive quality of life improvement.
  • I’d used cheaper ones before (that didn’t really cancel anything, just physically blocked some sounds), so the first time I wore properly-noise canceling headphones, it was like a weight off my shoulders. I could still hear to an extent, but the persistent machine noise was so much less intrusive. Being able to wear these in public also makes a huge difference on days I’m teetering in the edge of overstimulation.
  • It was like the world finally stopped crushing me. Ambient noise causes me a lot of anxiety and fatigue, so just feeling like everything was finally clear was almost magical. Definitely worth the $400 for headphones + longterm service plan for when I inevitably break them.
  • Blessed, blessed *silence*. I cried because I didn’t realise how quiet life was with actual noise-filtering ability.
  • My whole body finally relaxed, and I dropped like a sack of potatoes lmao

As you’ve read, I definitely relate.

  • Stunning! All other noise and demands disappeared. There was only the music. Each instrument making its own sense yet seamlessly together, like a beautiful ribbon of sound. “Autistic bliss.” I was rocking so fast.
  • Total, unadulterated peace. Close my eyes too, and it’s the closest I can get to a sensory deprivation tank experience. The only way to get the onslaught of the world to stop for a few moments.
  • Heaven. I wear them round the house switched on but sometimes without anything playing! Usually an audiobook though. Compete relaxing isolation. I love mine.
  • I’ve learned a lot about my own sensitivities, which noise has always been a big one. When I put on a good pair of headphones at work, I felt my shoulders release so much tension and my entire body relax. It was like my own little oasis in a sea of chaos. I wish I could wear them to work every day.

  • I was able to take a deep breath and relax. It helped me be able to handle the additional visual stimuli and fully process my surroundings and took me out of fight or flight response.
  • It was like someone had slowed my brain. I was able to think about what I WANTED to think about, not what I had to think about. It is like standing in the middle of a forest but amongst chaos.
  • The 1st time I used them was to watch Mozart in the Jungle and when the orchestra played I wept! The intermingling of all the different instruments and people was unreal!
  • I was stunned that I had lived my whole life not knowing I heard differently than others. I never knew such comfort. (Diagnosed at 35)
  • Peace. At last!!!
  • The feeling was a kind of bliss I didn’t know possible. the sound was inside my head instead of having to be fought for. I could stop being constantly reminded there ever had been an outside world, and just be me alone with the sound.
    yeah, bliss.

Sennheiser

Something specific about the technology in Sennheiser headphones really did something to accommodate my unique sensory profile, and that includes the vestibular issues and the left-right brain coordination. It was definitely one of the top three most definitive moments of my life.

So, I reached out to them and was able to score an interview with a portfolio manager, Dr. Christian Ern, who has been working at Sennheiser since 2001. The podcast should be out shortly, but for this article, I’ll break down some of the highlights of that conversation.

Please note that this isn’t a sneaky commercial or product placement. I have no affiliate links or professional connection with Sennheiser. My experience was so profoundly life-changing, I feel that the significance borders on being a human rights issue. With an accommodation this vital, the right products are essential to quality of life.

Dr. Ern was warmly delightful, humble, knowledgeable, and intuitive. It’s always a rare breath of fresh air for me when I can talk to someone who knows I’m autistic, acknowledge that my experience is different, and be authentically interested in exactly what that means. I got the impression that he very much cared about how he might be positively contributing to the autistic experience.

Our conversation was much less about the tech specs of equipment and much more about power of sound and how our own emotional and nostalgic connections were given dimension and brought to new life with the help of technology that he helped to engineer.

He spoke of a song that served as a soundtrack to many of his fondest family memories, one he’d listened to since his youth (“Spiral” by The Crusaders)— and with Sennheiser headphones he helped to engineer, he was able to hear an instrument in the song he’d never heard before. Another anecdote he shared was how he had the privilege to witness professional musicians listen to their own music through Sennheiser headphones and cry because the sound was given such powerful clarity by the technology.

Of course, Dr. Ern wasn’t able to tell me industry secrets about what to me is magical engineering. He did emphasize that headphones are very personal to the individual, and that even the shape of an individual’s ear impacts how they experience sound and how that sound interacts with a person’s unique sensory profile.

Naturally, some people will have different sensory needs regarding the weight of headphones and how they feel against the head, and also for volume, bass, register, and sharpness. He recommended that people try them on and test them, which can fortunately be done at Best Buy. Of course, he readily admits he is biased in favor of the Sennheiser brand, but he noted that individual preference accounts for a lot with headphones.

They are pricey, but he did mention that a great way to buy quality headphones is to snag a pair that is being phased out for a newer model as often the change is minimal and may not even impact the sound at all. This is how I bought mine, and I was able to get them for nearly 70% off the list price.

Ern did state that he believes autistic people might really benefit from headphones that have the hybrid ANC (active noise cancelling) technology that adjusts to ambient sounds to provide the optimal amount of noise suppression.

Luckily, right now one pair that he specifically recommended, the Momentum 2, is being phased out for the version 3, and so they’re on sale from $499 to $199. You can get them from the Sennheiser website here, or from Amazon here (with Prime shipping available). And holiday sales can be viewed here.

It was clear that Dr. Ern is very much invested in the joy and improvements the right audio tech can bring to people’s lives. For him, it’s a labor of love; that much was clear.

It’s my hope that this article will also inspire others to be more aware of the intense need of sensory regulation accommodations and how important they can be to autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people. Parents, educators, and employers may take heed that these can be as essential to quality of life as prescription eyeglasses, asthma inhalers, and wheelchairs, and that it’s okay if accommodations are “cool” and “in fashion.”

It’s no more spoiling someone or enabling them than contact lenses afford the nearsighted or hearing aids lend the hearing impaired. It’s empowering people to access a better quality of life given the skin they’re in, and that is always a sound thing to do.

 

10 Comments

  1. I have tinnitus on one side, so even with my beloved Bose wired NC headphones I don’t get absolute silence, which is what I really crave. But I love them all the same and get such peace wearing them since my NT husband plays music all the time at home. And for listening to podcasts, books or MP3 files, I find I have better cognitive ability when background sound is wiped out. I’m so much less distracted by noise that I can truly focus on whatever I’m trying to learn. They’re expensive, so for those who can’t afford them I think they ought to be covered under medical insurance for anyone diagnosed with ASD or ADHD.

    1. Author

      I agree completely!

  2. I’ve never tried noise-canceling headphones for the very simple fact that I’m afraid I’ll become addicted to them and never want to take them off. I, too, can’t tell where sound is coming from, but I never knew why. I wonder what my experience would be, but, alas, I do not have the money for such blissful things. I’m glad they’re helping you, though!

    1. Author

      Please let me know how they worked for you!

      1. I will try to remember, but it will be some time as i currently have no money! xD

  3. When I read ‘noise cancelling’ I did hope it was actually noise cancelling, not just a masking sound 🙁
    But headphoned would no good. I need noise cancelling most at night when mosquitoes, crickets, parties in the next suburb (especially when the drummer can’t keep a god rhythm), hoons hooning on the main road, etc, keep me awake

  4. Funny thing. There was a book I read a while ago – it was a realistic fiction novel called Boot Camp, taking place at a “troubled teen” facility (you know, one of those abusive ones), and the protagonist, Garret, was strongly autistic-coded but the author didn’t seem to know he was autistic (the character is a rich kid in the sort of rich family whose parents are likely to go out of their way to avoid diagnosing their little darlings with autism). And wouldn’t you know it, the book refers to him using Sennheiser headphones too. Funny that.

  5. I have also read about using musician hearing aids. Anyone try that?

    Thank you for this post. I think they should be covered by insurance too.

  6. Thanks to noise-canceling headphones, I was able to go to Frozen 2 with my sister and actually feel comfortable.

    That has never happened to me before.

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