Startled Does Not Equal “Guilty”

Most autistic people are on high alert often if not all the time. This means we startle easily and might stare at you in wide-eyed, mute terror simply because you walked into a room when we weren’t expecting it.

Unfortunately, and it took me learning this from an ex-partner, our startle reflex coupled with selective mutism (we may suddenly go non-verbal in response to stress, fear, sensory overload, triggers…) can look like guilt.

Meaning…

If you walk in on an autistic person and startle us, or if you ask us an unexpected question, or even if you raise your voice suddenly, we may get that “deer in the headlights” look.

– Jaime A. Heidel

You ever catch a neurotypical person trying to hide something, get caught in the act, and then get all wide-eyed and stammery?

Yeah, that’s not what’s happening with most autistics.

I’ve had it happen hundreds of times throughout my life that someone will start talking to me suddenly or ask me a question, and I will just go into a blank-eyed stare and not be able to speak. I may blush, swallow hard, and tense up.

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The best way to improve communication with your autistic loved one is to understand how your autistic loved one’s mind works! Intentions, motivations, and personal expressions (facial expressions or lack thereof, body language, etc.), are often quite different in autistic people than they are in neurotypical people.

Experience a better understanding of your autistic loved one by reading books about life from an autistic perspective as well as stories that feature autistic characters. You’ll have so many “Ah ha!” moments and start seeing your autistic loved one in a different light (and you’ll have a better understanding of their behaviors, which you may have been misinterpreting up until now).

Books I recommend for a better understanding of your autistic loved one:


This can read like guilty behavior to a neurotypical person.

If this is misunderstood to be the case with an autistic person, confronting us or asking rapid-fire questions in response to what you believe is guilt or an attempt to deceive you, we may have a meltdown or shutdown and accidentally “confirm” your incorrect belief that we are hiding something from you because you perceive our response as shame for being “caught”.

I believe this is another primary trigger for the development of PTSD. The fear and confusion that goes through us when we are suddenly interrogated after already being startled is almost indescribable.

With an autistic person (or someone with PTSD), a startle response to what you perceive to be ordinary stimuli may look like we’ve been caught doing something wrong, but we likely haven’t. Our nervous systems are just constantly in overdrive, and if you push us then, you run the risk of sending it (and us) off the proverbial ledge.

Most autistic people do not use their emotional responses to manipulate others. Our emotional responses are genuine and 100% in line with the amount of pain, confusion, and sensory overload we feel. Click on the photo below to read more about what’s happening when your autistic loved one gets very emotional.

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7 Responses

  1. Great blog! This gives me a lot of insight into my daughter’s (TSC/autism) past behavior re: appearing “guilty” and how that triggered people to respond. I remember many instances where she would just admit to whatever it was she was being accused of to shut people up, even if she hadn’t done whatever it was….the inquiry highjacked her system. I could always see it as her mother and could see the conflict within…like “maybe I DID do something?” and not really knowing what to do other than gentle support. This insight helps put some pieces together.

    • jaimeaheidel says:

      Thank you for sharing this, Jill. I’m so grateful that my writing has been able to help improve communication and understanding between you and your daughter. 🙂

  2. Dave says:

    Thank you so much for the insight! All my life (I was diagnosed with autism in my late 50’s) I have been honest to a fault. And yet many neurotypicals kept accusing me of being dishonest, deceitful, and generally untrustworthy. Some even tried hard to catch me in the act of doing something wrong. I couldn’t understand why so many were firmly convinced that I was a dishonest person. (A few years ago, a psychologist said I met nearly all the criteria for having PTSD, but he felt PTSD and autism were mutually-exclusive diagnoses. So he would not diagnose me with PTSD.)

  1. May 11, 2019

    […] If we were not expecting you to speak or didn’t know you were in the room, our nervous systems need to recover from the shock first before we can answer you. (Click here to read more about the autistic startle response and how that might make us look “g…) […]

  2. May 12, 2020

    […] know” and shutting down and even melting down if pressed on the topic, which people then mistook as guilt or my trying to hide something, so they started interrogating me, and then I really lost […]

  3. May 27, 2020

    […] I am ridiculously easy to startle. For example, if I can’t hear that you’ve entered the room because water is running, […]

  4. August 28, 2020

    […] I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a conversation with someone, and they have asked me a question while sounding suddenly angry or offended, and I would freeze up and stammer, which, I discovered much later in life, made me look guilty in the eyes of neurotypical people! […]

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