Speaking in Public, Audiences and Sensory Issues

In early April, I presented on the importance of self-advocacy for autistics at the American Occupational Therapy Association’s annual conference.  I presented along with my occupational therapist, Lisa Parker and my good friend, Professor Kristie Patten Koenig of New York University.

I plan on eventually posting more about self-advocacy and things I spoke about at that specific conference, but first I wanted to do some advocacy for myself by explaining how I deal with conferences.  As I understand it, there are very few people who actually like to speak in front of a large crowd.   I am told that most people get nervous when they have to speak in front of a large crowd.  I am no exception.  However, I do have to learn to deal with things in the environment that neurotypical speakers may not have to deal with.

So what are some of these things?

One of the biggest things for me is the extra noise that a loud crowd unconsciously makes.  I can hear the synchronized breathing of the audience, I can hear when an audience member is out of sync.  I have a hard time ignoring coughing, sneezing, whispering, beeps from electronics and all sort of other things – things even as subtle as if someone is wearing a nylon tracksuit and it rubs together.  Now, in all fairness, I don’t expect people to stop breathing or coughing if they have to, but it is important for me that whispering is kept to a minimum.  I can often hear what they are saying or commenting on and it really disrupts my train of thought.  Sometimes people talk about the presentation and other times they are talking to friends about things that they probably wouldn’t want someone else knowing.  For example, one time when I was presenting at a college, I heard one person talking about his rather private experiences from the previous night to a lady sitting next to him.  He probably would not have wanted me to hear that, but for me it was as if he was yelling and I had a hard time ignoring him.

So, in full disclosure, I feel like I need to always remind people about that sort of stuff at the beginning of the presentation.  I feel as if they hear me, but they do not understand me…I really can hear exactly what one person in the back row may be whispering to his friend about the previous night’s escapades as if he was sitting right next to me and whispering in my ear.  Sometimes it is embarrassing.  Sometimes it is really funny.

I also have a big thing with scents.  I can smell colognes, perfumes and deodorants.  Imagine a blending of 200 different colognes, perfumes and deodorants.  It is the smell of the audience and is sometimes overpowering.  What is also different, is that if I let myself, I can single out a specific scent and then determine which audience member it is associated with.   That can be a real distraction.  One conference I presented at a lady was really wearing a lot of perfume.  I don’t know if it was cheap or expensive perfume, but whatever it was, it really bothered me.  All I could smell was that perfume and I had to leave the stage for a minute because it overwhelmed me to the point that all I could process was the smell.  I can’t really explain it.  My sensory system seems to need to focus and all of my energies are put on that one need, so it is hard for me to type or speak or concentrate about anything else.

Lights are also a big issue.  Certain lights buzz and leave of this effect that almost is like a strobe light going on and off.  This is a real torture because the noise can sometimes drown out my own voice – at least to me – and the flashing is just plain painful to the eyes.

So, how do I deal with all these things, in addition to my plain anxiety over public speaking?

I have developed strategies that work for me but which may seem odd by neurotypical standards.  I may put on headphones and listen to music during a presentation.  Some people may think that this would drown out the presentation or the questions an audience member may ask of me.  It actually has the opposite effect… it helps me to focus in that the rhythm of one song is easy to hear through than the cacophony of a million sounds.  I also sometimes just get up and move around.  Changing my position in the environment may help alleviate some of the distractions for a short period of time.  Sometimes I just have to leave the room for a minute.

So, what is the point of this whole post?  I want to advocate a bit for myself and for other autistics who speak in public.  It is hard for us.  We may do some things that neurotypical people may find as weird and which may make them think that we are not really as smart or engaged as we really are, but there are reasons for behaviors that neurotypicals may find odd.  They serve a purpose and it’s just how we autistics process things in the environment.  If you were in my shoes, you would understand better, but I am hoping that this post and some of my other previous posts and posts yet to come will allow a peak into my world and the world of other autistics.