Sunday, 23 February 2014

The Terror of a Phone Call

When the phone rang, Adam used to react by pausing in his play, cocking his head to one side and saying, "Hurro? Hurro!"  In recent months, something has changed and suddenly the ringing phone utterly terrifies him.  He bursts into uncontrollable sobs, covers his ears and with tears pouring down his cheeks, runs to hide his face against my chest.  I wrap my arms around him as his whole body shakes in terror long after the ringing has stopped.  It easily takes half an hour or more for his terror to subside enough to allow him to even begin to calm down.

It has become second nature to remove the batteries from the house phone whenever Adam is home.  But sometimes we forget, at other times some callers ring repeatedly leaving us scrambling to remove the batteries or unplug the unit as quickly as we can while desperately trying to contain Adam's terror.    Other callers ring our house phone and then our mobiles in quick succession and it becomes a battle to mute them or turn them off in time, and with three mobile phones and a landline into our house, it's a battle we rarely win.  (Lest you wonder, no it's not possible simply to pick up the phone because comforting Adam's fear is always more important than answering a phone call - even if we tried to answer it, no one would hear us over his screams of terror.)

I have no idea why the ringing phone has suddenly become so terrifying to Adam.  It seems immensely ironic that his favourite toys are still ones that make noise, sing or are musical in some way - why is it that the phones terrify him while his toys do not?  There are other sounds that are similarly terrifying to him but in general, they are ones we can understand, for example the sound of a drill reduces him to the same state but that at least we can understand, drills are after all incredibly loud and have a certain whining pitch to them that is very uncomfortable.  But it's not just about volume - consider that we live across the road from an ambulance station so loud noises are a constant feature of our lives, but sirens don't even raise a flicker from Adam.  

On the other hand, one of his favourite TV programs, 'In The Night Garden' has a certain segment where birds whistle and sing.  Up until a number of months ago, Adam specifically looked out for this segment and paid close attention to it with a huge grin - now it also reduces him to shrieks of fear as he plugs his fingers into his ears, and sobs.  The only way to calm him is to fast forward this brief segment, once the other characters are back on the screen, his fear subsides and he returns to enjoying the show.

What is it about these particular sounds that trigger such a violently fearful response?  Is it tone, pitch, volume?  Is it a reaction triggered by autism?  We have no idea and because we don't understand it, there seems little we can do to prevent it.  Of course Adam cannot explain the reason for his fear as he has so few words.  Similarly, we have no way of asking him why he is so frightened.  All we can hope is that at some point soon, 'the switch' will flip again and these sounds will no longer trigger such fear. In the meantime, we focus on surrounding Adam with comfort and love.  

(But at the moment, please don't take it personally if we never seem to answer our phone...and please consider emailing us instead.)

Do you have a child with special needs?  Do they react in unusual ways to certain sounds or  other day to day occurences?  If you have any tips that may help us to help Adam, please do comment below.


  1. We go through phases of this, though not to the extent that Adam suffers with the fear. Alice went through a phase of leaping into the air and hiding/needing a cuddle when my phone rang. She too loves pretending with them but will refuse to hold one or go near it if there is an actual person on the other end. She has also recently requesting, in very shouty worried ways, that I turn music off which before she loved and the louder the better. She has a few mild sensory related quirks and our paed has just suggested that she is beginning to show some flags of being mildly on the autistic spectrum somewhere. Sorry, no advice other than to keep removing batteries! x

  2. Thank you Amy, even though I'm not glad you go through similar episodes with Alice, I am glad not to be the only one. I hadn't realised you were now hearing that she may be on the spectrum as well, that must be hard for you in addition to her CP. If it was just confusion (where is that sound coming from mummy?) or even 'discomfort' at the 'odd' sound, then I could just attempt to explain what it is or show him the source - but that absolute abject terror, panic, covering ears and behaving as though someone is torturing him is just horrible to witness. I wish I understood what is so painful for him about it.


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