We have a problem with masks.
No, not for the political reasons that everyone else seems to have about masks. We have a problem with masks because for the last bazillion months of the pandemic, masks, for the most part, have kept people from getting sick. Not just from COVID but from colds and other respiratory issues. Which means people aren’t coughing. And that’s a really bad thing for J.
For 2020 and most of 2021, you’d go to the grocery store and it would be silent. Church was silent. Classrooms? Silent. Almost every public place without a hack or cleared throat. To be honest, I didn’t notice. At all. And then late summer 2021 happened. The vaccine happened, people were congregating in larger groups, more and more people weren’t wearing masks in public like they used to. And people started coughing again.
The first time I realized how bad this was for J was when W came back from her church summer camp with a terrible cold (she tested negative for COVID). Then, as we travelled to Florida for a family reunion, me, Steve, and J came down with it too. It was, of course the first time we’d been sick in over a year. It was rough. And there was coughing. Lots of coughing.
Somehow, by some miracle (but at the time I didn’t realize how big of a miracle it was) J handled the coughing. At least how he typically handled coughing. Which means barely. J has always been sensitive to sounds. J hates any sudden, unexpected sound. Sensory issues are part of the autism disorder package and luckily most of the auditory sensory issues J has battled with as a kid he’s grown out of or been able to manage (for example he no longer runs out of a room, scared out of his mind, when a printer or heater suddenly turns on).
But coughing is a whole different type of problem. If you cough, it takes everything inside of him to not punch you in the face. In fact, he’ll tell you that’s what he wants to do. He’ll start screaming and yelling at you. His gets absolutely livid if you start coughing.
And since J hasn’t been anywhere where anyone’s been coughing–really coughing–for over a year, all of the minute amounts of “tolerance” he’s built up (his socially appropriate response of “are you okay? that he was able to toss out even though he just really wants to make sure you’re done your coughing spell) over the years have completely disappeared. Not just disappeared. He doesn’t know how to cope anymore. He can’t ride the bus without his sound cancellation headphones. He can’t go into his classroom or workplace without them. He can’t go to church without them. There was a stretch there over the winter break where he wouldn’t even go into Walmart for a 5 minute trip without his headphones. And even then, the headphones weren’t good enough. He would still warn anyone who dared to let one little cough out of their mouth to “stop it now.” It got to the point, right before break, where we couldn’t even go to his Beyond Running run group because he was so upset that someone might cough after their run. You guys, it’s become THAT BAD.
Because it’s such a digression to be relying so much on the headphones, I’ve been trying to find more discrete ways of helping J deal with this. I’ve bought multiple types of ear plugs (and lost some too. Which can get pretty pricey if they’re $20 a pair). They’re still not good enough. Meanwhile I keep looking at different options like white noise ear buds which start off at $200? I’m not ready to invest in that yet, especially if he puts them in his pocket and we never see them again.
So we’re trying the age-old approach of exposure therapy (which is hell on everyone). Like you sit in church for 5 minutes, headphones next you just in case, and then we leave after 5 minutes, hoping the whole time no one coughs for 5 minutes so J can feel like he can handle the world without ear phones. Then bump it up to 7 minutes, then 10, you get the point. Hopefully then we can re-teach him to calmly put them on if someone were to cough. And then maybe we can wean him to the more discrete ear plugs. It’s going to be thing. A long thing. But ultimately, I think it’s the only way we’re going to be able to get to being OK with being in public ever again.
So wish us luck. If you have any ideas, let me know! If you have any experiences with white noise ear buds, let me know! Or if you have any experience with extreme auditory sensitivity or misophonia, let me know! I would love to have some new ideas!