It’s a variation of the “freeze” response to confusion and danger.
A recruit was standing on a roof at Parris Island in the burning sun at parade rest. His DI had put him there to work on the roof and somehow had forgotten him. A passing sergeant noticed, stared curiously for a second, and bellowed, “Git down from there, prive.”
The private didn’t move.
“Goddamit, git down here,” bawled the instructor, unused to being ignored.
Nothing. The private looked deeply unhappy, but didn’t so much as twitch.
Another DI came along and yelled, but nothing moved the recruit. He gazed desperately ahead, either deaf or crazed by the sun. A group formed on the sidewalk, including a warrant officer, a lieutenant, and, finally, a passing light colonel.
The colonel snapped his crispest order. The private stared ahead. The crowd conferred, decided they had a mental case on their hands and prepared to send for a struggle buggy and some big corpsmen. Then the private’s DI returned.
“Jaworski, Ten-hut! Git your butt down from there.”
Down came Jaworski. From parade rest, you see, the only acceptable order is “attention”. The manual of arms says so.
“You see,” a drill instructor explained to me, “a recruit’s in a place he doesn’t understand at all, and nothing ever works for him. Back home, he knows the rules. Maybe he’s a big dude on the block, got it made. Not here. Everybody’s yelling at him and he can’t ever do anything right.
“So he figures he’ll do exactly what he’s told. It’s his way of protecting himself. If something goes wrong, he thinks at least it’s not his fault. This is what a drill instructor’s got to learn — nothing’s too crazy for a recruit to do if he thinks it’s what you told him. And you really got to think about it. Otherwise you can get him hurt.
Yes, I’m aware the recruit in the story was probably not autistic. What I mean is that this situation is analogous to the way aspies feel in a world full of vindictive, angry people who don’t make any sense. Pain is the universal language, so that’s why we’re all familiar with typical fear responses.