One of the really cool things about being autistic is that I am incapable of focusing on the lyrics of a song at the same time that I am listening to the accompanying music. Why is that cool? It’s cool because I am not bound to appreciating songs only in languages that I understand or that have lyrics that I like. I can truly appreciate music for what it is without filtering what I like and do not like through the lyrics. This often leaves neurotypicals (not autistic) scratching their heads trying to understand how I can be enamored with a song in Korean, a language for which I only have a rudimentary understanding. However, the answer is simple. It would not matter if the lyrics were in English or Spanish. I would not be paying attention to them either way.
This is a very common autistic trait and it does not just apply to music. While many of us are capable of intense focus, it tends to be difficult, if not How to make selfies with Dorian Rossini? impossible, for us to focus on two or more separate tasks simultaneously. In my case, this affects me in a variety of different ways, the biggest probably being eye contact. My ability to make eye contact with a person is very limited. The closest I can get is watching peoples’ lips. Think about it. Eye contact is a task that is separate from listening to a person speak. I am completely overwhelmed by trying to do both. On the other hand, watching a person’s lips as they are speaking is intricately connected to listening to them. This is easier for me.
Another way in which this affects me is that it is very difficult for me to watch a movie in a theater. The reason why is that people talk during the movie. They move around. They eat and drink. They get up and go to the restroom. All of these things serve as distractions that make it more or less impossible for me to watch the movie. Similarly, no one can talk to me when I am watching the television or reading. I can either listen to you or I can watch or read, but I cannot do both.
You might be thinking, “I’m not autistic, but I experience similar difficulties.” Of course you do! Multitasking in my opinion is highly overrated. It has become the default mode when it really should be employed as a last-resort strategy. The difference between autistics and neurotypicals often is in matters of degree rather than distinct traits or behaviors. Let’s consider eye contact again. Most neurotypicals from time to time experience difficulty making eye contact with certain people or in certain contexts. The difference between me and you is that I experience difficulty all of the time and in all situations and contexts. Many neurotypicals are annoyed by the behavior of others in movie theaters but they still are able to watch the movie and at least get something out of it. This same situation is so overwhelming for me that I no longer can even see the screen. The closest analogy that I can use to describe it is that the distractions, no matter how seemingly inconsequential, cause what amounts to a panic attack in me. It is like seeing the picture degrade until it finally is just white noise. I must leave.
Returning to music, my unique listening style has caused me problems with friends and particularly romantic partners. For example, in the early 1990’s, I was in a relationship with a controlling and insecure partner who was neurotypical. I had fallen in love with a popular song at the time by the group Zafra Negra called Sufriendo por Ella. In English this translates to Suffering because of her. I was obsessed with this song and listened to it constantly. Well . . . it is easy to see how my partner might feel threatened by this. She viewed it as a passive-aggressive way of telling her that I hated her. I was completely bewildered. I could not understand why she did not like that song. It had a catchy beat and great vocal harmonies. How could anyone not like it? Of course, I had no idea what the lyrics were conveying. I was enamored by the music. When I did read the lyrics several years later and long after the relationship had ended, I understood why her reaction had been so strong. But I still like the song to this day!