Autism Awareness Month, Day 3: Easily Startled


There are very few monsters who warrant the fear we have of them.  ~Andre Gide

Don’t ever do that again! Carnivores, oy! ~Timon to Nala, “The Lion King”

He probably saw Charlie Sheen

There’s a wonderful book out there entitled All Cats Have Asperger Syndrome, by Kathy Hoopmann, which I would recommend to any family with an AS child. It’s fun, very well-written, and has lots of pictures of cute cats being cats.

I’d agree with the title of the book in a lot of different ways. Having AS, if nothing else, has taught me that I can sleep through loud rock music, hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, gunfire on TV, fire alarms, and thunderstorms, only to be woken by the soft sound of a toilet flushing in the next apartment. Along those same lines, I’ve gone hours not even noticing my shoulder was out of joint, yet threw a fit when someone touched me on the arm by surprise. It’s either one extreme or the other with little grey area.

Good thing he's not a Sith lord

Most of my fellow Aspies are easily startled by sudden loud noises, flashes of light, or people touching us without being forewarned. It’s in our nature. Like cats, if we can easily predict something (such as a severe thunderstorm), it’s OK, but if it’s not on our timing and our terms, forget it. We’ll jump and hiss and screech and generally run away as fast as we can.

One of my theories is that somehow, those on the spectrum have hyper-reflexes much like those of cats or certain other animals. I can’t explain this any other way. Anyone who’s ever spent time around domestic “prey” animals such as rodents, horses, or chickens knows that this is so. If the animals are not aware of potential threats, they’re going to wind up on the Predator Buffet.

I have no concrete evidence to support this theory. I’m not a psychologist or a behaviorist, only an observer and someone with over 30 years’ personal experience. When I was a child, and no one knew much about AS, everyone assumed I was simply “nervous” or “flighty.” What they didn’t know was that I was taking in as much, if not more, than my NT peers, and my “flightiness” was actually a clever defense mechanism. If I sensed something coming to get me, I could “fight or flight” accordingly.

Check out his flippin' sweet ninja skills

I have to keep emphasizing in these posts that I am not a parent, and each child has different needs and motivations. I do know that many AS kids are easily startled and/or extremely sensitive to things NTs may enjoy: costumed characters at Disney World, scary movies, strobe lighting, sirens. Think for a moment how much our senses are bombarded on any given day, then multiply the effect by tenfold. That’s how a person on the spectrum may react. For kids, who are still learning the ways of the world, it may be even worse.

As I’ve gotten older, I’m still pretty hyper-vigilant (think of “Mad-Eye Moody” from the Harry Potter novels, and cross him with Jack Bauer…that’ll give you a fairly good idea). I’m not a nervous wreck, but I’m on the lookout for novel stimuli. My friends always laugh at me because, despite my non-thrill-seeking nature, I enjoy movies and TV shows about car chases and helicopters exploding. Go figure. But this also fits into my theory about predictability vs. chaos. If I go into a multiplex expecting things to blow up, that’s a known equation. It’s the unknown equations which cause difficulty.

Where? I don't see him...

My advice would be this: try to limit exposure to sudden novel stimuli as much as possible. (For example, don’t drag an AS child against his or her wishes to Chuck E. Cheese or a haunted house.) Ask the child what he or she is afraid of. Some of the answers may surprise you. Tell friends and relatives that your child is easily startled; most of them are empathetic once they know. Don’t get a clown for your child’s birthday party.

Remember, just as with cats, that AS kids need a comfort zone. Once they have it, they’re usually OK. And, like cats, AS kids never forget a learned fear, so be gentle with them.

Just remember: they might grow up to be a ninja (or a U.S. Army Ranger!)

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~ by Howlin' Mad Heather on April 4, 2011.

2 Responses to “Autism Awareness Month, Day 3: Easily Startled”

  1. When my son was younger he loved zombie movies. My brother loved them and would show my son masks, movies, and would make up my son’s face. Zombies and other ‘monsters’ did not scare my son at all, he loved them.
    One day I rented The Wizard of Oz for my son. I never thought of it as a ‘scary’ movie so I just popped it into the VCR (Yes, I am old) and went to do dishes or some other chore.
    Mid-way through the movie my son is hiding behind me asking me to turn off the movie. The Wicked Witch freaked him out.
    I could not understand how a kid could watch zombie movies but freak out over The Wizard of Oz, a kid’s movie!
    He explained it with 2 reason.
    1- He knew how zombie faces and gory feeding scenes were made. He had seen his uncle do it and knew it was not real.
    2- The Wizard of Oz was not supposed to be scary so he was not ready for the witch. He did not know much about witches and did not know there was going to be one after the house killed the first one.

    My son is not AS.
    I think your post is relevant to ALL parents. Each kid is different and manifest fears differently based on experience.
    I know this is more pronounced in AS kids but any parent can relate to you posts in some way.

  2. The Jack Bauer reference was for me, n’est-ce pas? I sympathize with the sensitive startle response. When we talk, let’s discuss this.

    I’m still enjoying your blog.

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