Being Of Sound Mind

Brandon Myers interrogates his sound sensitivities in a list of triggers that would be familiar to many autistics, up to and including one of my personal pet peeves: phone conversations in public places (especially when using speaker). What I wanted to highlight comes at the end, though.

Myers relates having an uncharacteristic outburst at a fast food restaurant, prompted by someone having a loud conversation on their phone, and wonders about what was up.

Was it due to annoyance left over from work? Is it because loud sounds and conversations bother me? Or was it simply I’m exhausted from the non-stop rudeness the world seems to have embraced? I’m not sure, but after Saturday, I realized I need to look into this. So, I took the first step yesterday and reached out to a therapist. It sounds like she’s booked up till the end of March, but out of the people I researched she seemed like the best bet for me. I’m hoping she can help me figure out this sound sensitivity thing as well as help guide me from becoming quite so worked up over some of this stuff. I’ll follow up once the therapy begins.

Disclaimer: I am not, here, arguing that Myers is autistic, but this should be relevant to anyone with sensory thresholds.

One of the earliest things I ever wrote when I started blogging about my autism diagnosis was an explanation of the differences I’d clocked between reactions and responses when faced with stimuli.

In physics, it’s usually described as being “equal and opposite” but of course the wrinkle when we move from physics to psyche is that the impact of what might be deemed the same stimulus is going to be different from one person to another, especially when we’re talking about brains that aren’t neurotypical. Any given stimulus could be a mild annoyance to a typical brain, yet the emotional equivalent of a sharp stick to the eye to an atypical brain.

Reactions, in other words, are the things we cannot control. Responses, however, are the things that we can.

I cannot control how my brain reacts to stimuli. I can, sometimes, control my responses to my environment. More, sometimes it’s true that reactions to certain stimuli happen at a comparatively slow enough pace that even there I can control how I respond. My inner reaction might be more severe than I let on with my outer response. Where that line is, I have no idea. I’m sure it varies.

For my purposes here, the issue is, “I can, sometimes, control my responses to my environment.” Why the sometimes? As I wrote on the same subject later, it’s a matter of what kind of resources I have available to me at the time a stimulus sets off the reaction-to-response pipeline.

So we are going to have to come to terms, literally, in that we need to be using the same language to describe things. For me, it’s a matter of stimuli, reaction, and response.

More than that, it’s about my needing to make clear that I do not believe even our responses always are within reach of any control. In a day with few stressors or triggers, I could outright slam my own thumb with a hammer while trying to nail something together but be conscious enough of my environment to not launch into a scream of, “Jesus fucking Christ!” in front of a bunch of children.

In a day with many, mounting stressors or triggers, I could “simply” be having trouble removing a nail from a board and there is no stopping me from almost autonomically falling into a long string of shouts and curses, no matter who is around.

Sometimes it will play out as stimulus, reaction, responses. Sometimes it will play out as stimulus, reaction, room to breathe, response.

What I suspect, then, that Myers will discover in therapy is that his sensory threshold varies with his resource capacity. The lower one’s physical and psychological resources, the less likely there will be that “room to breathe” moment between one’s innate reaction and one’s outward response.

This means two things.

First, once aware of this dynamic, you slowly, over time, become better at managing the expenditure of one’s resources, conserving what you can for the bombardment. Second, hopefully you come to accept that sometimes the pressure of stimuli will overpower your resources, and your innate reaction will dominate your outward response.

That second one sucks, but it’s the truth of it. At that point, my biggest suggestion would be to turn to self-compassion, even if “unmindful” and after-the-fact.