Perhaps you’ve read that hearing more than one conversation at the same time is sensory overload and overwhelming to autistic people.
This comes up a lot in content written by autistic adults.
It’s not difficult to locate content in which the autistic author explains why they can’t stand being in rooms full of talking people.
They may say that paying attention to the conversation they’re having with one other individual is nearly impossible – even totally impossible – because other conversations are too distracting.
It’s one thing to overhear other nearby conversations and become distracted because the topic is interesting — yet you’re still able to conduct the conversation you yourself are having.
It’s a different ballgame, though, when the distraction outright impedes one’s ability to interact.
In the spring of 2022 I was diagnosed autistic. As a result, I’ve developed a strong interest in attending get-togethers for autistic adults.
So I joined an autistic group. We met at a pizza place. There were 11 total people.
We all occupied three tables. And let me tell you, it was a constant buzz of voices – and loud.
At one point there were three Autists at a table, plus me and another Autist at a small table right across from them.
All of us were interacting while the other people at the next table were also going at it.
Trust me, it was not a quiet atmosphere. There was the continuous buzz of socializing that you’d hear at any pizza place.
The man at my table did most of the talking (he was very talkative), and I, along with the three other autistic people, had no difficulty following him while we all heard conversations going on at the next table.
They also had no trouble following me, or anyone else in our group who took a turn speaking.
Eventually the 11th person showed up and soon joined the table of three Autistics across from my table.
He had no difficulty paying attention to the man at my table while the buzz from the next table went on.
I didn’t observe any signs of sensory overload — only what appeared to be typical people all talking among each other.
Eventually we went outside. At one point I was standing with five autistic people; we were in an oval formation.
Person “A” was conversing with Person “B” while Person “C” was conversing with Person “D.” This meant that two of us, including myself, were silent.
What was striking was that none of the four Autistics who were talking got confused or overwhelmed by the other talking pair standing only feet from them.
In other words, Persons A and B were easily carrying on while Persons C and D – about a leg length away – were also talking up a storm. And this went on for several nonstop minutes.
But it doesn’t end there. Nearby was a playground with several young kids who were screaming and hollering. This didn’t phase anyone.
A few weeks prior I had met up with autistics at a large, popular bowling center.
It was even noisier – what with big crowds on that Friday evening, along with loud music and pins being knocked over.
Half the group bowled while the other half sat at a table for socializing.
Nobody had any problem paying attention to conversations amid a very loud ambience.
Not All Autistic People Get Overwhelmed by Multiple Conversations
Bear in mind that a meetup at a pizza place or bowling center wouldn’t attract Autistics who easily experience sensory overload around a bunch of people talking.
Those who struggle to pay attention to conversations amid the noise of nearby conversations or other sources of loud noise would likely pass on signing up for these kinds of activities.
Autism Spectrum Disorder comes with multiple stereotypes. One of them is the inability to follow a one-on-one conversation in a noisy or talkative environment.
Other people on the Spectrum prefer quieter, more reserved atmospheres, such as card playing groups or discussions held at a library.
The best way for neurotypicals to make sense of all of this is to remember a saying that’s popular in the autism community:
If you’ve met one autistic person you’ve met ONE autistic person.
“When I’m in a room with multiple conversations I find it difficult to focus on one and block out the rest, but I don’t personally view this as a problem,” says Jess Owen, co-creator of thewyrdsisters.co.uk with her sisters and diagnosed with ASD at 25.
“I can flick between different conversations like TV channels (especially if the topics interest me), and always make it back to ‘my’ conversation in time to answer a question or make an appropriate noise or face.
“It feels almost like daydreaming in school, but keeping track enough to respond if you get called on.
“Sometimes I’ll flick between conversations to see if a different one interests me more than my current one, and if so, try to bring mine to a close. I think – assume — that neurotypical people would find this impolite if I explained it.”