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Saturday 20 March 2021

Disability & Metal Part 1 (Opinion Piece By Alex Swift)

This first post is an opinion piece from Alex Swift who details his experience with rock/metal and Autism 

Alex Swift: Metal and Autism

Can the metal community be considered a welcoming place for people on the autism spectrum? Really that depends. Neurotypicals – a word which is here used to mean people who are not neurodiverse - like to talk about the metal community as if it’s one body, when in reality its far more complex than that, and what is a community other than the people within? You might hear some scholars on autism talk about ‘obsession’. Autistic people tend to prefer ‘special interest’ as hobbies and interests we are often zealously passionate about. Some of mine are music and politics. 

Oftentimes special interests will be more granular than that. I might choose to ‘hyper fixate’ on an artist or album for weeks before moving on to something else, almost as suddenly as I became intrigued. Part of having a special interest is wanting to analyse every aspect of something – this is why I like to review music. Doing so allows me to slot into a section of the ‘metal community’ that is as fascinated by music as I am.

Another interesting aspect to point to is sensitivity – music provides an outlet which allows me to expose myself to sensations which might otherwise be too much to handle, or result in a process known as ‘autistic meltdown’. I’ve had a few of those at concerts, or in packed bars, yet these are more often than not what you’d call controlled environments. Note: many autistics use this term differently from the sense of someone is telling everybody how to behave. Elements like loud music, screaming, crowds, glaring lights are all incredibly simulating to the extent that I do still get overwhelmed by them to this day.
Interestingly, when Black Sabbath formed they had the idea to try and carry the sensation of watching a horror movie through music. And why do people go and see horror movies if not to expose themselves to visceral and extreme emotions, in a safe yet stimulating context? Another comparison might be a rollercoaster - a rock concert can be scary, heart racing, visceral, yet you are ultimately left feeling empowered by the experience. I remember when my parents would play AC/DC or Led Zeppelin to me I would often sit in the corner, utterly loving the experience, struck by the physical sensation of loud music surrounding and reverberating through me. I want to make clear that these sensations are separate. 

It’s not a case of 'feel the fear and do it anyway' as much as its an attempt to let myself feel the stimulation that comes from loud music, in a healthy way. Often, when listening to music at home I pace, contort my arms or scratch my skin. This is called 'self-stimulatory behaviour' or 'stimming' for short. It’s an important part of how autistic people control their emotions and understand the world around them, so is an important tool in self-regulation. Incidentally, being at a show or being with a group of friends can have the same effect, just as I need to be on my own to ‘recharge’ when interaction starts overwhelming me to an uncomfortable extent.
As well as the controlled chaos lent by events, there's also that sensation associated with the music itself. Interestingly, I find music can particularly reflect the autistic experience by capturing a cacophony of emotions and sensations in a short space of time. Music has political and societal links. Musical movements don’t happen on their own, and it’s also the case that music deals with a lot of those emotional stimuli which affect me as an autistic person – the caustic social commentary of Rage Against the Machine or Kreator, the harsh pictures of mental health painted by Linkin Park and Deftones. Regardless of the genre the changeable, multifarious, and harsh tones of rock are, for me personally, perfect at supplementing the autistic experience.

Psychologist, David G. Angler notes that:

“Chaos and uncertainty are high during and immediately after disturbances, resulting in discomfort from not knowing how the disturbance will end or what the future holds. Uncertainty and chaos may be associated with the patterns of mathcore, grind core, and progressive metal's rhythmic complexity. These sub genres are characterized by unusual time signatures, atonality, and dissonance in the manifestation of song elements that are reminiscent of chaos. The listener is constantly challenged to digest and anticipate dynamically interacting and often antithetical sound patterns and rhythm structures”

This leads me to talking about the concept of emotional sensitivity. Contrary to popular belief, autistic people can and do feel emotions and care what you say about them. Often more so than neurotypical people as every sensation is heightened and felt to extremes. Its sometimes the case that autistic people find communicating and expressing those emotions harder. Music, again, acts as a tool for me to be able to understand how I'm feeling. While there’s truth in the statement ‘metal music makes you feel sad’ a more accurate analysis would be that ‘metal helps you to process sad feelings’. I said I'm into politics earlier, and as part of that I feel a lot of 'social grief' - actual grief that you feel, associated with societal events. Music can make you reflectively contemplate your own anxieties, or see the issue of death, corruption, and environmental destruction in a wider scope, past the mournfulness which envelops you in that moment.
There's been research by writers such as Diana C. Herald who point out that music can act as an anchoring 'other'. Due to the increased sensitivity, in cases such as mine autism can come with feelings of depression and anxiety. I've been quite open about my struggles with mental health. To be more specific, I'm incredibly anxious about simple actions like talking to new people or stepping outside of the familiar. This leads to depressing feelings later down the line and doubts about my self-worth as a person relative to others in my immediate circle. On the one hand, communities like the 'metal community' help to foster a sense of belonging and togetherness, and on the other the emphasis on confidence and brashness can be distressing for some autistic people who feel unable to interact with the scene in the same way as everybody else.

That said, the music itself can be incredibly fulfilling. A study by the University of Queensland involved metal fans being given an ‘anger course’ where they recalled moments in their life that inspired anger. They were asked to spend ten minutes listening to songs of their choice and ten minutes in silence. The music helped them get into a more positive mental state and “explore the full gamut of emotion they felt". This raises the incredible possibility that music in the vain of Rain in Blood by Slayer, or Psychosocial by Slipknot is actually incredibly soothing and a loud equivalent to enya. Joking aside the chief takeaway from all this might just be that listening to music reduces negative emotions – even taking this at its simplest illustrates the power music might have in helping those who struggle to regulate their feelings.

As Prog musician, Steven Wilson, observes:

“Music that is sad, melancholic, depressing, is in a kind of perverse way, more uplifting. I think if you respond strongly to that kind of art, it’s because in a way it makes you feel like you’re not alone. So, when we hear a very sad song, it makes us realise that we do share this kind of common human experience, and we’re all kind of bonded in sadness and melancholia and depression.
I would like to point out that I am wary of any 'diagnosing' of celebrities and public figures by non-autistic people. It’s usually well-intentioned but I resent it for the same reason I don't like people labelling autistics as 'great assets for competition' or 'great mathematicians'. It consigns our value as human beings to our economic or social value. It also boils autism down to a few distinguishable features when in reality it’s a spectrum. I might theorize that Steven Wilson is autistic based on the subject matter of his songs, the way he acts on stage etc. but I can never be sure. 

This oversimplified approach means that I often get confronted with observations like 'you don't seem autistic' or have people say, 'I'm sorry to hear about your condition' in social settings like clubs and concerts. This in spite of the fact that autistic people often use a tactic called camouflaging or masking where they feel the need to hide some of the aspects of their autism for fear of social exclusion. This is something that exists in a lot of aspects of society but is particularly pressing in subcultures where there are behavioural expectations associated with your ability to socialize. In spite of this, as noted previously, most of my interactions within the metal community have been positive. I am not ashamed of my autism. It's part of who I am

This leads me to conclude my observations. When you are autistic, like I am, music can help to effectively process feelings which you may not fully comprehend. One phrase we like to use in the music critic community is ‘melodic weight’ – this describes how music carry’s meanings which can take someone from one emotional state to another or remind them to see their experiences past the narrow personal prism they may be perceiving. Through music itself and through the communities and cultures which form through music, individuals like myself learn to interact in a social setting, adopt shared practices or ‘rituals’ and form relationships based off a shared love of an artist, or style of music. It is hopefully easy to see how this is valuable to individuals struggling to find an identity for themselves.

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