“Have you met my startle reflex?”
I say this at least once a day. It’s almost like a running joke with me. It’s a great little scripted line, to explain why I jump/flap/whimper/cover my ears/etc when a sudden sound or flash or something happens.
I have “super-human hearing” – my auditory sense isn’t one I can just “turn off”, and it has next to no filters. I hear everything that goes on in the room around me, and actually can’t wear noise cancellers, because my brain uses those sounds to orient me. I hear the hum of the lights, everyone’s breathing, the noise the projector makes, and the whir of my professor’s hard drive. I even know when the people behind me are using pencils versus pens on their paper when they’re taking notes. My brain doesn’t filter these sounds out automatically – instead I have to consciously recognize each of them and then file it away.
I’ve tried using sound cancellers before, and rather than having the calming effect of blocking out noise and making it easier for me to function, it has the opposite: when I stop hearing ambient sounds, my body’s sense of direction goes completely haywire. Gravity turns off. I can’t tell which way is up, down, right, left, or anything. I don’t know where I am, and become completely disoriented. I often get dizzy and nauseous. For this reason, despite the fact that I have an over-reactive startle reflex, and have to spend a lot of time and energy dealing with my overzealous hearing, I don’t have a good solution. I call this “auto-audio-orienting” – my body orients based on the sounds I hear, not visual cues or anything else. I’m a being who relies almost entirely on sound to function. (Ironically I have mediocre vision (I wear glasses) do use visual signals. It’s just my body that relies mostly on sounds.)
But this also means that I am super susceptible to my over-reactive startle reflex. Slam a door near me? I jump. Come up behind me? I jump. Tap me on the shoulder? I yelp, then jump. Make a sudden, sustained loud noise, and I’ll slam my hands over my ears and go into sensory shut down. People say I’m high-strung, wound up tight, and all number of other things. What they don’t realize is that every time there’s a sudden noise, my brain’s filters aren’t able to process it properly. It gets stuck, and instead of processing “the door just slammed”, as most people do, I process “OUCH LOUD NOISE HELP THAT HURT WHAT JUST HAPPENED?” – is it any wonder why I jump?
I’d like to invite you into my brain. Please when you’re done reading this, sit and listen. Close your eyes if it helps, and consciously observe every single sound you hear, from the shuffling of your own feet, to the movement of someone else’s hair, to the flickering hum of the lights. Consciously think about it. Realize where it’s coming from. Every time I enter a new environment, this is what it is like for me. Now try to hold on to all of these sounds. Recognize them, think about them, tie them down to what is making them. Notice when they change. Exhausting, isn’t it? Then open your eyes. And start looking around. Notice everything you were hearing and the stuff you didn’t hear. But don’t let your brain block out those sounds again… keep track of all of them. AND the new sights. Now try to have a conversation with someone, without letting your brain wander away from those sounds. That’s what it’s like for me, but backwards. Where you have to work to listen and hear everything, I have to work to filter it out to concentrate on what I must. And that was just two senses. Think about adding in smell and touch and taste, too.
I have spent my life building up a way to deal with this constant input of sensory insanity. I have found some ways to cope, and some ways to work around it, but it’s really for the most part, simply an exhausting part of my day-to-day life. I’m usually pretty good at dealing with the everyday input. The constant hums, the scratching of pencils or tapping of keyboards, the scratching of feet. I’m able to turn most of my brain energy to other, more important and interesting things. But when there’s a sensory surprise, I react the only way I can. My brain has been overloaded. My resources must be suddenly diverted to dealing with the new input. And since I do not live in a tiny bubble where no sensory surprises ever happen, this occurs multiple times per day. My body reacts physically. A sudden input leads to a temporary sensory shut off. My body goes rigid (thus it looks like I jump), as a way to avoid textures and movement. My eyes shut. I gasp and hold my breath. And if I can, I will cover my ears. The sensory surprise is too much for my poorly built up filters, and thus, my body reacts physically to help protect my brain. When the assault is over, I can relax and return to my previous state. Depending on resources available (brainpower) and the magnitude of the input, this can take seconds, minutes, or sometimes hours.
As with many autistic individuals, my startle reflex is very sensitive. I now know why mine is this way. This may not be the same for other autistics, but it’s how my brain functions. When I was younger, this would trigger a full-blown meltdown/shut down. Now that I’m older, I’ve learned how to (mostly) keep these to only affect me for a few minutes, but they can still trigger a full on shut down as well. And now, you have met my startle reflex.