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Playground Nightmare: Auti-Sim Is About Childhood Autism

Auti-Sim is a very short experience. But then, so is having a railroad spike driven into your ear. That’s the basic idea behind the horrifyingly overwhelming dose of auditory hypersensitivity disorder, which was put together as part of the Hacking Health Vancouver 2013 hackathon. The short version is, you’re an autistic child on a playground, and everything seems perfectly normal. Then more sounds start creeping in. Voices, whispers, screams, footsteps, swingsets creaking, merry-go-’rounds whirring. All distinct, yet inseparable, like the whole world is trying to stampede its way into your head, trampling your eyes and ears. Auti-Sim hurts. But it hurts for a reason.

Obviously, this isn’t a literal interpretation of what it’s like to have auditory hypersensitivity disorder. Rather, Auti-Sim draws on horror game tropes juxtaposed against a bright, idyllic playground environment, to rather brilliant effect. It’s more or less an approximation of what debilitating sensory overload would feel like, designed so that people who’ve never experienced it can come to grips with just how difficult seemingly mundane situations can be for autistic kids and adults.

For me, it started very slowly. I approached the playground, and then – little by little – my vision blurred and sounds bled together. Louder. Louder. LOUDER. I couldn’t take it. I had to escape. I stumbled and lunged for reprieve, eventually sighting a swingset way off in the distance, free from the faceless crowds. Only there was I able to get my bearings. It was quiet. It was nice. So I just sort of hunkered down. Alone.

I think that’s what struck me most about Auti-Sim: not the sights and sounds (which were admittedly very well done), but the isolation. The fundamental incompatibility with other human beings – even if they were just immobile, AI-free cardboard cutouts. The effect was still palpable.

Granted, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the illusion’s very breakable. One time, I hopped on the merry-go-’round, and it flung me clear out of the playground and into a nearby endless plain of nothingness. It was, er, very quiet there as well.

So Auti-Sim isn’t perfect by any means, but it’s a super interesting (and much-needed) experiment in experiential education. It’ll only take you a couple minutes to try out, so get to it. Also, protip: use a decent pair of headphones and turn up the volume until it starts out just a little bit uncomfortable. Happy pained fleeing!

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Nathan Grayson

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