The Chewing Thing

Asperger’s Syndrome has presented me with some unique challenges. For example, I struggle with spatial awareness, I can have trouble concentrating (my mind tends to wander a lot) and I have a propensity for getting locked into negative emotions. After almost thirty years I still play with pencils sometimes and, apparently when I’m deep in thought, I tend to squint a great deal. Still, none of these issues has had more impact on my life than my hypersensitivity to the sound of people’s chewing. There is not a relationship I’ve had that hasn’t been affected, some have been drastically altered by it in fact. It’s not the kind of thing I’d normally advertise to the world, but I’ve decided to share this story for two reasons; Firstly, if there are others with Asperger’s who might be dealing with this issue, I don’t want you to feel alone like I did. Secondly, for friends and family of those living with this sensitivity I want to try and provide some perspective.

My awareness began on a warm Sunday afternoon when I was seven years old. My family was gathered on the back porch of our house in Verona, New Jersey for dinner. We were having my favorite summertime dish, grilled Italian chicken with wild rice. It was subtle at first, but unmistakable. Seemingly out of nowhere I became hyper-aware of the sound my brother’s mouth made when he chewed food. It wasn’t obnoxious, certainly not when compared to how kids normally eat but I became intensely focused on it. The sound could best be described as squishy and moist and I hated it. That sound, combined with the motion his mouth made as he chewed had an effect that was so irritating I could’ve screamed. I tried to eat as fast as I could just to get away from the table but was foiled by my mother, who insisted that I remain seated during family dinner time. It was pure agony, and by the time my mother finally relented and allowed me to leave the table I practically flew upstairs to my room. I spent the rest of the night listening to my tape player at high volume to drown out all other sounds. I didn’t understand what was happening or why, it didn’t make any sense. I’d sat down to hundreds of meals with my brother before with no issue, what had changed? I couldn’t have known it at the time, but that evening at the dinner table was only the beginning. My family would come to know this behavior as “the chewing thing.”

Whenever we sat down for a meal, wherever that meal might be, I made every effort not to sit next to my brother. If we went to a sporting event or the movies, I insisted that my dad sit between my brother and I. If we ate at the kitchen table I turned the TV on so I could try to focus on that instead. Going into restaurants I would purposely trail behind my brother to make sure I sat opposite him. None of this was particularly subtle and nobody could explain this behavior, least of all me. I remember one particularly stinging incident that happened in the car on the way back from the Jersey Shore. My CD player had its batteries die and I had no spares so I was stuck in the backseat while my brother chewed away on some bubblegum. I was so annoyed that I curled up in the corner, stuck my fingers in my ears and closed my eyes. I ended up falling asleep like that and when I awoke my brother was in tears. He couldn’t understand why I was doing this to him, why I hated him. My father didn’t have an explanation outside of this is just one of your brother’s behaviors and he doesn’t mean it. I pretended to keep sleeping so I didn’t have to face that conversation, but I’ve surely never forgotten it. The relationship between my brother and I was greatly stained by this, amongst other things, and by the time we both reached high school we could hardly stand one another. It wasn’t until I went to college and my brother the US Army that we would begin to repair our relationship. I’ve long wondered what that must’ve been like for him, to have his own brother refuse to sit next to him and try to leave the room anytime he wanted to eat. Unfortunately he wouldn’t be the only one to experience this.

As the years progressed my hypersensitivity would spread to others, starting with my father. I noticed that he not only chewed somewhat louder than my brother but continued to move his lips for minutes after he’d finished eating. Now no matter where I ate, when I was with family there was nowhere to hide. My father caught on pretty quick to what I was doing and confronted me about it one afternoon on the back deck before a barbecue. He noticed I was trying to finagle it so I didn’t have to sit next to him and he said to me, “You pulled this stuff with your brother and you will not pull it with me. Do you understand?” I begrudgingly sat down and minded my manners in front of the company. Particularly after my brother joined the army I can’t tell you how many times I left my father sitting at the dinner table after five or ten minutes. He took the time to make me a meal every night, after working all day and I couldn’t be bothered to give him more than a few minutes in return. I missed out on so much time with my father, time that I can never have back and it’s one of the greatest regrets of my life.

These days my hypersensitivity is as strong as ever, in some ways it’s even more pronounced in adulthood than it ever was during my childhood. I am particularly susceptible to people who chew gum, eat ice cubes or crunchy food like raw carrots and chips. I’m even finding that I get annoyed by people’s chewing on the television and in movies (the character Toby Ziegler from “The West Wing” is a particular offender). I sometimes wonder if this is going to become more acute as I grow older, and how exactly I’m going to handle it. I have already gone to great pains to deal with this sensitivity in a more mature manner. Firstly, I make every effort to not let people know what is going on in an attempt to value their comfort over mine. I tend to try and engage people in conversation over a meal, much more so than I did as a kid (which I suppose is an unintended benefit). If I find myself starting to become annoyed I tend not to make eye contact, instead choosing to focus on something else. If all else fails I just sit there and take it. I concentrate on breathing, accepting the discomfort and knowing that it will eventually pass.

I may have improved my coping mechanisms, but the long-term consequences of living with this hypersensitivity have been significant.  I choose to take the vast majority of meals by myself, both for my own comfort and to make sure I don’t alienate those around me. This has had an isolating effect on me as I now rarely socialize outside of work. The guilt I’ve carried with me from childhood has also been tremendous. Part of this is because there wasn’t as much information readily available regarding this sensitivity when I was a kid as there is now. The result was both myself and my family misinterpreted this behavior as merely acting out instead of the involuntary reflex it was. For more than a decade I just assumed I had acted like a monster as a kid and should be ashamed. This was one of the driving forces behind the drinking problem I developed in my twenties, not to mention the issues of self-loathing and doubt that still persist. It wasn’t until I corresponded with somebody two years ago, whose own brother lived with Asperger’s that I began to view my own behavior through a different lens. Regardless of whether or not my actions were involuntary, I will always have guilt over what I put my family through.

Part of the growing process is acknowledging that I live with  emotional and behavioral triggers. Some of these are involuntary, and while I’ve worked hard to control my reactions it doesn’t always take. I have to accept that this is part of who I am, and that process is both hard and ongoing. I’ve been afraid to open up about this for so long because I was afraid that people would regard me as a freak and reject me. I will likely never be free of these tics and triggers, and they will continue to cause issues but I will not give in to them or allow them to define me. I’m not a religious man by any stretch but there is a prayer I’m rather fond of, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” Amen to that.