This post is part of a series for Autism Acceptance Month in which I will be exploring various ideas and subjects relating to autism and being autistic.
If there’s one thing we can count on in life, it’s change. Things are always changing all around us. We, ourselves, are always changing. Change is one of the only constants in life, as ironic as that may be. Yet for those of us who are autistic, change can be upsetting, frustrating, and downright distressing.
My husband and I had been planning to take a trip across the river to pick up a bag he had forgotten at one of his many doctor’s appointments. I had been dreading this journey as it would mean travelling through areas of high traffic during rush hour after a long day of work. Yet, upon receiving home, I was greeted by the sight of my youngest sister-in-law in our living room and my husband confirmed that we would not be adventuring that evening. Despite how much I had been dreading the trip, I was thrown off by the sudden change. I had to step back and collect myself so as not to breakdown.
To my non-autistic readers, this probably seems odd. Why would I be upset about the cancellation of plans that I hadn’t wanted to begin with? I have to be honest, I don’t really understand it well myself. What I do know, is that if this had happened when I was in high school or even just a couple years ago, a change like this would have thrown the rest of my day off and I wouldn’t have been able to recover. I’ve made great strides over the past few years in dealing with change, but I still stumble when faced with change and occasionally meltdown.
For many autistics, we thrive on certainty and routine. Our brains prefer predictability over new and different. This is why we often watch the same shows and movies over and over again rather than watching something new. It’s why many of us have books that are falling apart from use having been reread again and again. Predictability and routine are comforting and reassuring. It eases our existence in a world that was not designed for us.
When our routines are broken or plans are changed, it can be highly distressing. It’s hard to explain how it feels, but I’ll give it a shot. When I find out something has changed, something twists within my chest. It’s like losing your footing while going down the stairs. Everything is thrown off and nothing seems right. Often, for no discernable reason, anxiety and pain fill me to breaking, needing to be released through stimming or a meltdown. Other times, I grow angry. Often at no one nor nothing in particular. Just angry that things have changed. This is what change is like for me, though it may be different for other autistic people.
So what can you do to support your autistic loved ones? We all know that change is unavoidable. Even if only occasionally, plans are going to change. Routines will need to change. So how do you help the autistic person in your life deal with this? Give as much notice as possible. The sooner I find out a change is going to happen, the better I am able to prepare myself and deal with it. If sudden changes can be avoided, do what you can to avoid the change. If a sudden change is unavoidable, try to be understanding of your loved one’s distress, even if it doesn’t make sense to you.
For all of the autistic people reading this, I know how hard it is to deal with change. Even small changes can be distressing and day ruining. I mentioned earlier that I’ve gotten better at dealing with change. This has been a long process of gradual change. As I’ve been more exposed to shifting plans, the better I’ve gotten at dealing with it. As hard as it was in the beginning, each time I have to deal with a sudden change the more I learn about how to self-regulate. The ways we cope are going to vary for each of us, but over time, it is possible to develop coping mechanisms to help deal with change. Something in particular that has helped me is to not make plans until close to when they will be happening. This way there is less of a chance of things changing. I know for many of you this won’t work as you need to have things planned out in advance, but for me this has really helped me avoid frequent, sudden changes.
Change is inevitable, one of the only constants in the universe. Change is also distressing for many autistic people. However, it is possible to make things easier for the autistic person in your life or to help yourself as an autistic person.