Experience Atypical: Sound

I dread customers who inquire about our Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh! cards.

I’d sooner deal with ignorant customers who look at my body and decide that I don’t know anything because girls don’t game. I’d sooner tell the teenage boys on the computers to stop using “gay” as a slur for the five millionth time. I’d sooner scrub the toilet, wipe down the keyboards and sweep the floor, even after the day a bunch of boys, for some reason, broke up, scattered, stuck, dropped and flushed jelly beans everywhere.

The customer will say something like “Can I get that Zygarde?”, sometimes with “please” inserted somewhere and sometimes without, and then look at me as though they’ve asked me to do the simplest thing in the world. I mean, it’s not hard, right? They name a card, I pull that card out, I register the transaction, they pay. Job done. People who have never worked retail make unfair, unrealistic and uneducated comments about unskilled labour, but the process is not assumed to be difficult, at least in theory and with an assumption of non-disability.

What I hear, though, is something closer to “Nn uh get th Aard?”

This is when I start to panic, because I don’t know the names of any Pokémon that aren’t Pikachu, Charizard and Mewtwo.

I always have to ask twice. Most of the time I have to ask three or four times. You’d better believe they’re snapping at me by that stage, and you’d better believe that I’m squeaking out apologies while trying not to shake and find the cursed card in question.

It’s not easy to find cards when you’re half-panicking and afraid of the reception you’re going to get if you ask the customer to pronounce the name one more time so you can match it to the cards in front of you.

I can cope with the third trading card game we sell, Magic the Gathering. I’ve read the Comprehensive Rules for fun and because I like being able to answer rules questions when players, who think that because I work behind the counter I know things, ask. I keep up with set releases, tournaments, deck lists and story, so I know, when someone asks for “Emrakul”, they mean Emrakul, the Aeons Torn, a betentacled world-corrupter, the greatest and worst of the three Eldrazi titans.* I know a request for “Blinky” is a reference to Eldrazi Displacer, so-nicknamed because of its flicker (blink) ability (and I also know that flickering or blinking is to exile a creature and return it to the battlefield). These invented words and adapted usage of words, while nonsensical taken alone, have become my language.

When someone asks me if we have an Emrakul, I know that she lurks in the Modern section of our counter display. I can even follow up by asking the customer if they have their Nahiri, the Harbinger playset yet, because I know that using her ultimate to cast Emrakul is the jolt in the heart Modern control needed. It’s a relief when customers ask about Magic, because I know the words. I know the names of things. I know I can do the job.

I like being able to do a simple job in the way the world assumes me capable of doing. I’ve grown up with the expectation that I’m able-bodied and neurotypical, after all. I still feel good when I can fulfill that programming, even if the expectation is ridiculous and unfair.

It’s taken hours and hours of research, though, to become familiar enough with Magic just to be able to do what other people often take for granted – to listen to a card name and then find it in our stock without asking the customer to repeat themselves three times or more until I can make sense of what they’re asking.

In many ways, I’m in the worst possible job for an autistic who struggles to process the spoken word.

I’ll hear something like “Nn uh get th Ejishrul?” when a customer asks for Emrakul. I’ll also only need to ask them to repeat themselves once, if at all, because I’m fairly good at correlating the nonsense I hear to a word I know, as long as I know the word they’re asking. I’ve got a far better chance of hearing enough the first time that I can pick apart the sounds, compare the shapes of the sounds to the words I know and come up with a card name, even if it takes me longer than everybody else.

If I’m in a quiet room with little or no background noise, though, I can hear perfectly.

I used to amaze classmates by writing down everything my teachers said without ever referring to slides or notes on the whiteboard. No background noise, you see: no customers, no competing tasks, nothing but the teacher’s words, the odd rustle and my pen on paper. (My worst distraction used to be the movement of other people’s hands. I can’t cope with flickering – or blinking! – physical movement, like finger-tapping or flickering lights. It feels like somebody shoving crochet hooks in my eye sockets to dig about in my brain.) In an ideal world, where there’s nothing else to look at, think about or try to not hear, I can process spoken information as fast and as accurately as anybody. Classrooms and libraries were practically invented for people like me.

I also do best with people I know well, because I’ve been able to get an ear in for their accent and rhythms and word-use over time.

Everywhere else, including every working environment I’ve ever had, is chaos.

I hear everything all at once. The radio, the cars going down the street, the two guys tapping their fingers against the keyboard, my mouse clicks, the two gamers talking, the kid knocking over a shelf of Pop! Vinyls, my own tongue running over my teeth, someone’s phone ringing, the door creaking, the clang of trolleys out in the loading bay … all there, all at once, all with equal intensity, all jostling for space in the part of my brain that pays attention to everything. When I’m on my own, outside the house, I wear headphones to block out several noises with just the one (metal is also pretty good for this) but I’ve never held a job where headphones are safe or appropriate to wear around others, and I’ve always held jobs where I need to hear people speak.

I assume the neurotypical brain filters some of this chaos out so one can focus on important things, like customer queries. I assume this based on the fact that I don’t hear my coworkers asking for people to repeat themselves with the same frequency, although they’re subject to the same background chaos. I assume this because I leave work wanting nothing more but quiet for several hours thereafter while my coworkers talk about how they’re now so used to the noise they don’t notice it. (Two years on, I am not used to it.) I assume this because I feel as though I’m stupid and abnormal for not hearing things and taking longer to make meaning out of what I do hear.

I get to use words like ‘auditory processing disorder’ now, if I need to explain. I can just nod to it as part of the sensory processing mess that, for me, comes hand in hand with autism. As I’ve said before, though, when you don’t have those words and explanations, when you don’t know that your experience is just a developmental disorder or divergence, you’re left with words like stupid.

I’m not. I just hear too many things to hear any one thing properly.

I often hear, over the din of the world, the shapes of words rather than the word itself. I’ll always hear you speak: I can repeat the sounds I hear you say back at you. They’re not real words, though. They’re outlines without the shading. I hear rises and falls in pitch, first or last letter, number of syllables, stress, nonsense that sounds like the shape of words I know. “House” might be heard by me as “hoos”, but so might “horse” or “goose”. Context fills in the missing words, but enough background noise makes me feel like I’m trying to finish a crossword with only half the clues. Accents make any attempt to listen to word via shape useless, because the pronunciation of any given word often doesn’t match the outline I’ve learnt to recognise.

I don’t go to clubs because I can’t hear anything recognisable over the music. I hate restaurants because all I hear are other people talking. I never understand the loudspeakers at railway stations. Yesterday I had a bus driver ask me where I worked, and I had to get him to repeat himself three times, over the roar of the motor, before I understood the question well enough to answer. If I get through a phone call at work without asking the customer to repeat themself twice, I’m doing well!

Yet most of those conversations still comprise words that are real to me.

When I know the words, when the babel of sounds I hear can be sorted, held up against the words likely to be said and matched for meaning, I can get by. I’m often slow on the uptake, because I’m having to go through a few extra steps of sound-matching while trying to disregard auditory input that is unnecessary or irrelevant, but I manage.

Things that aren’t yet words, phrases or names to me, though, like the names of Pokémon or the utterly idiosyncratic naming system of Yu-Gi-Oh! cards, render my coping mechanisms useless.

(‘Red-Hot Fire Ice Toon Dragon’, as a slightly-exaggerated case in point, means words I know arranged in non-standard or unusual ways.)

I have to ask the customer to say the word again, and again, until I finally hear it enough times that I can pierce the name together and match it up to the written text of the cards before me. For whatever reason, it takes me many verbal repetitions of a word for it to become part of my inner lexicon. It’s possibly related to my ability to remember names if I write them and take six months to remember them if I only hear them spoken. I know it drives some customers to frustration, as I’m plenty able to hear tone of voice!

Consequently, the dread.

At the end of the day, the process of serving customers in the standard gaming retail environment doesn’t provide me the optimal situation I need with which to best provide that service.

It wouldn’t be a disability, otherwise, would it?

There are plenty of things customers can do to make it easier for me, though. Some of these are game shop specific, and some of them aren’t, but they’re all things I’d love to see customers do. They’ll even help neurotypical game shop retail assistants who also can’t remember fifteen thousand different Magic cards or where, in a counter display of two hundred cards, someone else decided to place our single Verdant Catacombs! As someone who knows how to make it easy on the staff who serve me, I get the best service in other game shops, and most of these things aren’t hard to implement with a little time and patience.

  • If you’re coming in to the store with a shopping list of cards, have an actual written list. (Better, include colour and set release! This makes it so much easier for me to find the cards in question.) Don’t recite card names and then expect me to hear and remember them. I can’t.
  • Don’t assume I know every single Magic/Yu-Gi-Oh!/Pokémon card and character because I work in a game shop. Don’t assume me to be ignorant, because that’s insulting (and often sexist), but ask me if I know before giving me the deluge of obscure card names that may be nonsense words to me.
  • Speak slowly with moderate volume. Face me while you speak so I can watch your lips. I don’t lip read, exactly, but the shape of your lips gives me clues about the words being spoken. Looking down or away also makes it even harder for me to hear you.
  • Point directly to the card. Alternatively, give me directions to the card: “Top row, second from the left.” I can make sense of these words much quicker than I can a name I don’t recognise.
  • If you’re asking me rules questions, show me the card/s in question. I can read it myself and process the interaction much faster, thereby coming up with the correct answer straight away, than if you read the card out to me. Remember that people have different ways of processing info! Some of us need you to read the card. Some of us need to read the card ourselves.
  • Ring the store from a quiet location. (Seriously, if you’re a customer and you ring from a carpark, station, street or anywhere with loud background noise, you’re a fucking wanker.) Unless you’re calling about a tournament due to start in five minutes, nothing is urgent enough that you need to subject me to a phone conversation about a stock item with the added extra difficulty of background noise on your end. I’m already having to listen to you against the backdrop of in-house customers and the work radio!
  • Be patient with me when I ask you to repeat yourself. I don’t do it to annoy you. I do it because I want to get as much information as possible with which to give you as much service as possible. I assure you, the problem is mine!
  • Don’t exclaim or emphasise a name/word I didn’t hear the first time. Saying it differently doesn’t help me with the piercing-together-and-comparison process I need to make sense of what you’re saying. It’s also rude and upsetting.

I’m a bit afraid that too many people are going to just read that list and tell me to not work in retail, despite the fact that the employment options open to a chronic-pain-and-mental-illness experiencing autistic with various executive functioning issues are in practice limited.

No, working in retail isn’t easy for me.

I like it, though. I like talking to others about passions we share. I like helping people out by answering questions or finding stock for them online. I love showing newbies the Magic ropes: guys just getting into Magic are, in the main, incredibly respectful of my knowledge despite the misogyny and homophobia I often cop in-shop. I like our regulars, I like the games, I like the environment where geeky people can wear their geek on their sleeves. I like stocktaking and categorising and organising! Many things about my job drive me to distraction, but there’s many things about it I love, too. Why should I have to give up something I like just because there are parts I struggle with?

Considering that I can’t process half of what my customers say, I think I do a damn good job.

I’m just asking that you put up with me while I ask you, for the umpteenth time, what card it is you’re after.

* As of writing, Emrakul, the Promised End isn’t a card available on Gatherer, although it shortly will be. Wish me luck at Prerelease: I’d love to get Emmy and both parts of poor melded Brisela for my white/red Kalemne deck, mostly because I already pulled Nahiri, the Harbinger for the flavour win…