The Steel Trap Syndrome

by | Sep 8, 2021

Why Do Small Things Upset People on the Autism Spectrum with Such Regularity?

Because one incident at some earlier point in time created a black and white rule in their mind.

When living with, working with, or just relating to an individual on the autism spectrum, it can seem like one simple or small thing can elicit a huge (and sometimes inappropriate) response from them.

Understanding the Why Behind the Reaction

Let me share an example.

My son has a long ponytail – almost to his waist.

I told him one time when he was 14 that he could wear his hair anyway he wanted as long as he kept it clean and out of his face. Hence, he hasn’t had a haircut since he was 14 and his hair was long enough to pull back in a ponytail!

Regardless of how often I ask him if we can cut off part of the pony tail, he reminds me of what I said when he was 14.

Though that fact is not the point of this post, it does relate to the Steel Trap Syndrome I want to share.

This morning my son was flipping his ponytail around, and the dog was watching it with great interest, and looking light she might like to play tug of war with it.

It created a funny cartoon-like image in my mind, so I pointed it out to my son expecting him to be amused.

Instead, he growled something to the effect of “she’ll be sorry if she grabs it!”

Now it is a well-known fact in our household that he does not like his hair touched by anyone…EVER.

Today when I saw the level of upset the idea caused him, I wondered what was behind his strong reaction.

So, I asked him.

His response? “Once, when I was 9 years old, Jeffrey (a neighbor 5 years his senior) came up behind me on the pier and threw me into the lake. I have hated people being behind me ever since, and I vowed that no one else would ever do stuff from behind me again….”

There are a few, very telling things about that statement.

This happened only once, not many times, just once!

And it was a very small incident, meant to be the fun a big brother has with a little brother.

This was an incident that most people would have forgotten entirely.

But my son has harbored a life time of frustration and anger on this one happening and re-lives those negative feelings every time his hair is touched, or even talked about!

In his very black and white way, he has created a rule.

And with that rule, he has harbored the anger, frustration and defenses that were responsible for creating that rule for years – he is 25 now!

These are often the small things that individuals on the spectrum hold on to!

It is what I am calling “The Steel Trap Syndrome.”

People with ASD often have a mind like a steel trap … and they are the ones who get trapped!

With a mind like a steel trap, life becomes very complicated. It can be full of psychological and emotional land mines.

Navigating the Traps

Imagine how much effort it requires in life to keep from tripping all those traps once they have been set!

In a world that doesn’t understand … or barely understands … it is likely that these kinds of traps get set all over the place.

If you are a parent or therapist who is trying to change behavior, this is important to know!

The root cause of the behavior or reaction (and probably the ability to change the behavior or reaction) may be one small incident that happened a long time ago.

The Steel Trap Syndrome formulated a reaction to the experience that may be deeply entrenched … and especially difficult to change without uncovering that initial incident.

And the protective reaction can be relived again and again … often as though the initial incident is happening anew each time.

One other irony I want to mention related to the incredible memory that people with ASD sometimes display.

This ability to remember every detail of an incident from 20 years ago is situational.

It does not happen across the board with all things.

It tends to be limited to those incidents that had negative outcomes.

Things the individual wants to remember.

Unfortunately, The Steel Trap Syndrome often doesn’t occur at a convenient or preferred time that works to your advantage, like when you are helping your child study for a test at school…:)

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