Ethan is petrified of both.
I used to love the game Simon. I see it and immediately think of the 80s and childhood and playing games in my best friend Ryan's attic (that and Hungry Hippos, too). When I saw a small travel version at Target, I picked it up for Ethan for Christmas last year. I thought he'd love the game, since he's got a great musical ear and exceptional memory.
I forgot about one thing: the anticipation factor. Over the past few years we've learned that Ethan is not a fan of anything that involves a noise or surprise coming out of nowhere unexpectedly. The first time he heard Simon buzz when he picked the wrong note, Ethan was done. Simon was left to collect dust. Somehow at some point Simon ended up in my car (seems like that's always the story with my car) and recently Anna found it. While I ran back to house to get something before we headed out, she apparently grabbed Simon and began playing, knowing this was akin, to Ethan, to using some sort of medieval torture device.
I came back a few minutes later to find him hunched in his seat, terrified. "Please, make her stop playing that!" he begged. He looked ready to jump from the car and run for the hills.
"Annaaaa," I said in that voice that told her I knew exactly what she was up to, and she grudgingly put the game aside.
Flipping through channels to catch the weather forecast last week, I came across an episode of "Family Feud." I used to love watching it when I was a kid, so I lingered for a few moments. I could see Ethan getting increasingly antsy on the couch next to me. I knew what was going on before he said a word.
"Mamaaaa," he said slowly, twisting in his seat, eyes anxious.
"You don't like the big X, do you?" Right then, the host said it: "Survey says?" The answer wasn't up there.
The big red "X" in the box appeared, with the buzzer sound effect.
Ethan put his hands over his ears. "We have to change this!" he pleaded.
"Why does the X bother you so much?" I asked. I always ask, and he is not able to articulate. Another "X" appeared on the screen. Ethan covered his ears, almost writhing in discomfort.
"It's okay buddy," I told him. "We'll change the channel."
When the buzzer sounds, when the noise he hates goes off, he is locked in. He goes from a regular kid just chilling out to fight or flight response. If I didn't feel so bad for him, I'd want to laugh, but I try to remember: this is a phobia of sorts. It's the way I feel when I see a spider crawling in my car and can't get it and wonder if it's going to do something horribly creepy like drop on my head.
As much as he loves the predictability and look of fire alarms, he is petrified when they go off and startle him. He can't stand thunderstorms -- not because of the thunder, mind you. The thunder comes after the lightning. He can predict when thunder is coming. It's the lightning he doesn't like, he tells me. It's those darned unexpected flashes.
And then there are video games. Ethan runs out of the room while watching certain video games if there is a part in the game where the player can unexpectedly, suddenly have something jump out at him or "die." This is the one that makes me a little sad. His teachers are always blowing off his lack of play skills by saying, "He's getting older. All of the boys start relating to each other playing video games, anyway. Try not to stress. He'll love that." Yeah, I hear you. He does love video games and it is a way for him to find some common ground and chat with other kids. Only - how would that go off, if he's hanging with a group of kids and has to keep running from the room because of a sound effect or moment in the game that sets him off? How would they react to find him in the other room, pale-faced and wild-eyed, waiting for a certain part to conclude?
I guess this all has to do with dealing with feelings of tension and anticipation. Again - those who say people on the spectrum don't feel things as intensely have got it wrong. In some case, they feel too much or don't know how to properly regulate their emotions. Right now Ethan can't take the concept of something coming out of nowhere. I guess I would liken it to that feeling when you're at the top of one of those amusement park rides where they shoot you up and then torture you by waiting at the top before sending you flying back down. You know the drop is coming and it's going to be bad. You just don't know quite when.
Imagine living with that feeling often rather than just for 10 seconds one summer day. I think of Ethan as a baby, always quick to startle, and as a toddler, staring at that Jack-in-the-Box, holding his breath waiting for the moment of truth.
He has dealt with this for a long time. It can't be easy. I am hoping with time he learns creative ways to deal with the tension. I hope we can give him the tools he needs to feel the unease without letting it paralyze him. And I hope others will be compassionate about what on the surface seems like a funny kind of quirk. Panic isn't funny, whether it's about being in the dark or closed in spaces or about buzzing "x's." I hope those now nameless, faceless, video-game-playing boys in the future remember that.