Community rallies to replace headphones for autistic neighbor

'It really opened my eyes to how I can be the same age as someone on my street and live such different lives'
Ariana Sheehan, right, helped raise money to replace neighbor Caitlin Donovan West's noise-blocking headphones.
Ariana Sheehan, right, helped raise money to replace neighbor Caitlin Donovan West's noise-blocking headphones.

NISKAYUNA — All it took was a missing pair of headphones and MP3 player to bring a neighborhood together.

Late last month, residents around the Niskayuna Co-op noticed bright signs stating that a pair of headphones and an MP3 player had gone missing.

“I saw the signs and my initial thought was ‘This is ridiculous,’” said Ariana Sheehan, a town resident. It wasn’t until after she posted a photo about it on social media that she noticed the fine print: “I am disabled and can’t go out in public without these.”

Sheehan immediately texted the number on the flyer and asked if she could set up a GoFundMe campaign. It turned out that the person in need lived only a few houses down from Sheehan.

Caitlin Donovan West had been hoping her headphones and the MP3 player would turn up, though she wasn’t placing any bets that they would. Her Bose noise-canceling headphones and the MP3 player help her to keep sensory overload and autistic burnout at bay. West, who is autistic, can experience anything from mental and physical fatigue to PTSD symptoms to anxiety, leading to autistic burnout — an inability to meet life’s demands. But with the headphones, at least some of the noise is blocked.

“Music can also be really comforting,” West said.

So when she lost the headphones that she had invested in (the pair she had were worth about $350 and the MP3 player came in at about $25), getting out and about became a problem. 

But thanks to Sheehan, friends, neighbors and even some strangers came together in a matter of days to help her out. Sheehan set up the GoFundMe campaign and reached out to Bose explaining the situation.

“It really opened my eyes to how I can be the same age as someone on my street and live such different lives,” Sheehan said.

Sheehan is the regional content strategist at Townsquare Media, and social media is her expertise. Yet, the way that people came together for the campaign surprised her.

“There were quite a few people who surprised me. People I haven’t talked to in years donated,” Sheehan said.

Bose also responded and sent a new pair of headphones to West.

The two then decided that any other funds raised by the campaign would go to the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. The network spreads awareness and education about autism, and it’s run by people who are autistic, which was really important to West.

“There’s not a lot of great information out there,” West said.

When she was diagnosed with autism a few years ago, West struggled to find accurate and useful information about it. West, who is 34, remembers being in middle school and suddenly becoming very sensitive to sounds such as chewing, but she wasn’t really able to explain it at the time. Doctors at first said that she didn’t fit the mold of the typical autistm patient so she went undiagnosed for years.

“It’s been a multiphased thing,” West said.

Over the years, West has come to realize that society is really not designed for — and in many ways accepting of — Autistic people. She has often felt pressure to “act normal” which can mean anything from sitting still to interacting with others when it would actually cause her physical and mental pain.

“You’re expected to pressure yourself into doing tasks that other people can do,” West said.

Those expectations can be stifling and can even cause chronic anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder in some cases.

“There are so many rules about body language.  . . . Our society really restricts our movement,” West said.

Autistic people often have to move a bit more, West said. But that’s not always socially acceptable in a restaurant, library, bus, etc.

It’s something West hopes to change.

She’s been writing more and more on social media, and has a blog about her experiences to try to help others better understand autism.

“I’m so touched that people are listening and that people care,” West said. “It’s giving me momentum and hope.”

It’s also helped her to feel connected with the community around her, all thanks to a pair of lost headphones and a neighbor who took initiative.

Sheehan said she plans to keep the campaign going at least until the initial goal of $400 is met, if not exceeded. For more information about the GoFundMe effort, visit

Categories: Life and Arts, Schenectady County

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