Expressing our emotional needs can be a tricky business. I’m autistic, and I know that it can take a lot of work. And, as Brisbane mother and full-time carer Magenta Quinn learned late last month, a neighbour demanding peace and quiet can be harder to help than a child on the autism spectrum.
Ms Quinn’s neighbour, who "wished to remain anonymous to avoid any conflict", threatened to call the council if something wasn't done about her autistic son, who hums, moans and yelps to soothe himself.
On a typed note delivered to Ms Quinn's mailbox, the neighbour wrote, "When you moved in we heard these strange [sic] moaning and shouting coming from your garden ... we were concerned there may be illegal activities, so we contacted the police who in turn have visited your premises."
The neighbour continued, "I would kindly request that you consider your neighbours and try to limit the amount of time that is spent in the garden such that we do not have to listen to the disturbing noise daily and sometimes before 6am.
"I am giving you the opportunity to help us live together in this community without it becoming a constant battle."
The reason Ms Quinn’s teenage son makes so much "disturbing noise" is because he is nonverbal. This behaviour, common for people on the autistic spectrum, is sometimes referred to as "stimming", and depending on the individual, it’s used for different purposes.
I have speech and I still find that when I’m feeling mentally and emotionally overwhelmed, (as distinct from sensory overload) repeating sounds or movements can be calming.
Dr Michelle Garnett, director and clinical psychologist at autism support network, Minds and Hearts, explains, “Someone on the autism spectrum who does not have the capacity to express themselves with speech may often make unusual noises, including humming, yelps, moaning and sometimes loud noises."They do this because they have the same human emotional range, but not the same capacity to understand, express or regulate their emotions.” She adds, “They are not doing this to be annoying.”
So whether we are autistic and nonverbal or neuro-typical and angry, we appear to be bound by the same struggle to communicate our needs and feelings effectively.
The ability that we have to express ourselves as people appears to be so limited that we either criticise, blame and judge others because we haven’t got the tools to do anything else, or moan and hum and are then rendered vulnerable as a result.
It’s taken me years of therapy, reflection, and time in the self-help section to learn how to articulate my feelings and needs, because the way I’m designed to do so isn’t what others are comfortable with.I’d rather point at colours, rock back and forth, or clutch at the carpet and growl than have a conversation. Yet none of these behaviours seem to say to those around me that, "I’m scared because I can’t find the words" or "I just need to release pent up rage and frustration."
Instead, it appears to suggest to this neighbour that "illegal activities" could be taking place on the premises, or that I’m "disabled".
As Jon Martin from The Australian Autism Alliance observes, “Avoiding conflict doesn’t reduce tension, if anything, it escalates it.
"And parents of autistic people sometimes don’t have the answer. They may be socially isolated and they may lack support and services and are just surviving from day to day.
"A bit of understanding can go a long way.”
Ms Quinn can probably empathise with a desire for peace and quiet more than anyone else. She has dedicated her life to looking after a child who yelps, moans and hums all day, every day. So if there was anyone who is probably in need of a solution – it’s her.
The problem is that so many of us – both on and off the spectrum - are expected to just know how to address conflict. And as this situation demonstrates, we often don’t.
I’ve spent a lot of time reading books and seeing therapists and the best resource I’ve come across for learning how is Dr. Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life.
Dr Rosenberg’s work goes above and beyond any advice given by the Queensland Government about how to deal with neighbourhood conflict (keep calm, talk through the problem, hear the other side, etc) or anything that I’ve been told by specialists.
In his book, Rosenberg lists feelings and needs along with detailed, step-by-step processes for how to express them and hear them safely, and with empathy. Because that’s what we all want to be able to do - the problem is that so many of us don’t know how.