Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Sound Curves

Last Saturday was one of those classes: when my body and brain reach critical overload. Who knew learning how to teach Orientation and Mobility would be so exciting?

We were learning to cross the street (under blindfold) by listening to the auditory cues from the near parallel traffic (the cars traveling on the closest side of the street to us). I spent 45 minutes teaching my traveling partner/student the mechanics of crossing with the parallel traffic surge (listening for the approach of the car, determining the "now moment" (when to start crossing the street), auditorally scanning traffic to make sure no car was turning in front of you...). He was a quick study and progressed to independent crossing after only a few times with me guiding him. Then it was my turn to be the student and his to teach me.

I'd already noticed I was having trouble identifying the "now moment" when our instructor was demonstrating to the class. We all closed our eyes and pointed to the parallel traffic, then dropped our finger at the "now" moment. All the other students seemed able to identify the right timing, but I realized I couldn't accurately pick out the moment when the car noise surged and I could cross. When our instructor asked if we were "getting it," I raised my hand and said, "No." Oh well, it would just take some practice. If it were a real class with a real student, of course we would take more time and spend several lessons just listening to cars. But this was "Saturday pace" (meaning hurry!) and we had to keep moving.

I put on my blind fold and my travel partner/teacher instructed me on how to find the "now moment" by listening to the cars stop at the stop sign and then surge forward. I listened hard and then listened harder, letting several cars stop and then go, feeling dizzy the longer I stood on the street corner, listening to the cacophony of traffic noise swirl around me. It wasn't just that I couldn't tell when the so-called "now moment" was, it was the fact that the sound literally felt like it was curving around me, twirling like a huge dust devil that wrapped around in front of me and then melded into the next whirl of sound. Whether the sound was near or far, beside me or coming from in front, it was all one wild wave of noise.

The T.A. assigned to us asked me what was wrong.

"I'm really dizzy right now. The sound is swirling all around. I can't localize any of it." Gripping my cane tighter, I took deep breaths, because the dizziness was turning into panic. "I'm sorry. I have to take off my blindfold."

Tears were in my eyes as I ripped off the blindfold and tried to slow my breathing down. What the hell is wrong with me? I'm freaking out in the middle of class while standing on a street corner! Come on, Terena. Get it together. I have to get across the street!

My breathing returned to normal as my partner and the T.A. discussed what had happened and what we should do next. "Yes, it's Saturday pace, " the T.A. said, "But don't worry about that right now." She thought this was an excellent teaching opportunity for both of us. What do you do when you student is on overload and can't process the sounds coming at her?

I really wanted to get across the street, so I put my blindfold back on and stood back on the corner, this time with my travel partner standing much closer. Together, we three talked about what I was hearing. I describing how no matter which direction a car was going, they all sounded like they were crossing in front of me. While I listened, my travel partner described which direction the car was actually traveling (most were going forward across the intersection.)

When a car turned the corner and crossed in front of me, the T.A. asked, "How did that sound?"

"Loud. Much louder than when I think I hear them turning the corner." I listened to a few more cars turn the corner in front of me and each of them sounded louder and deeper than the cars going forward. But I still didn't feel confident that I could really tell whether or not a car was going straight, so my travel partner did human guide (I took his arm and he guided me across the street) with the parallel surge so I could listen to the cars while moving. That helped. As we walked across the street the car sounds straightened out and I could hear them drive off into the distance.

I never made it across the street on my own. When we rejoined the rest of the class after the exercise and I told the instructor what I was experiencing, she said, "Oh no. That happened to me too! I'm so sorry."

Really? The instructor, who is an incredible teacher of Visually Impaired children with many years of experience (I won't say how many) had the same auditory processing problem as me when she was a student in this program. If she managed to survive getting across the street under blindfold, and eventually became a teacher, I can too.

What is causing me to hear sound curve? Is it reflecting off the buildings behind me? Am I hearing all the echoes from multiple sources? I've already written about how hard it is for me to tune out incidental information while under blindfold. Is this another example of that? Is it just too much sensory information? Or could it be the shape of my ear collecting the sound? Will I ever be able to use auditory cues to safely cross a street independently? How on Earth will I ever make it across 19th ave (a major thoroughfare in San Francisco with hundreds of cars, not just a hand-few.)?

See, I told you Orientation and Mobility is exciting.


leah said...

Wow- what an amazing experience (talk about sensory overload)! It was a great learning experience, though, because I'm sure there will be students that you will have who will experience the same thing. And you'll have a good idea of how to handle it, because you've dealt with it yourself.

What an exciting course of study!

Katy said...

The learning never stops, does it? I find it interesting that you have trouble tuning out incedental information--my MIL has the same problem and as a result gets VERY confused when she drives.

Terena said...

Good thing it doesn't happen to me when I drive, Katy!

I blame my distraction on a tumultuous childhood and the fact that I'm a writer. I've trained myself to pay attention to every detail. Now I can't turn it off.

Elizabeth said...

This is fascinating stuff -- thank you for telling us about it!

Michele said...

What an incredible experience that must have been!
So much we take for granted.

Thanks for sharing this with us.
((hugs)) to you and that amazing daughter of yours ;)