Autistic Anticipation

How do people navigate such turmoil?

I was just diagnosed with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) in December of 2022, a few weeks before my 58th birthday. I wrote about what caused me to seek this diagnosis here. I’m rather new at this stuff, and I’ll be blogging quite a bit about various aspects of it as I go along, reading and learning and wondering what this means for me, as I suspect that quite a few other people are experiencing a similar thing.

Check out my autism category for a list of relevant blog posts, and never forget that 1) I’m just one person, writing about my personal experiences with a thing I only just learned I had. 2) No two people on the spectrum are alike. 3) I am not a medical or mental health professional. 4) I’m not attempting to write a one size fits all autism advice column.

There’s this coping mechanism that I have employed my entire life. Usually it serves me well. Unfortunately, sometimes it backfires. But it works often enough to not change my ways at this late date. Still, I suspect it wouldn’t hurt if I revamped my operating system a bit.

I’m now calling this coping mechanism “Autistic Anticipation”. It’s second nature to me. It’s how I’ve learned to survive in a world that thinks differently than I do. It never occurred to me to break it down into its basic parts until now. Looking at it through the lens of my autism, I suspect it’s an autism thing, but I’m not sure. Maybe it’s just a Barb thing. I’d be interested in your perspective in the comments below.

If I’m walking into a situation that’s not the usual routine for me, I tend to preview what I assume will happen in my head before the event takes place. I do this because I don’t like surprises. I find the unknown to be extremely (and if I could come up with a word that was more extreme than extremely, I’d be using that) stressful.

I do this before going to a restaurant or a party or having a difficult conversation with someone. I do it before making a phone call or going to the grocery store. And I’m so practiced at it that I often do it in a split second. But here’s the thought process:

“I’ve never been to this restaurant before. The following people will be with me. We’ll walk in and there will be someone waiting who will take us to our seats. Or maybe they’ll tell us there’s a waiting period, in which case we’ll sit there and wait unless it’s an obscenely long waiting period, in which case we’ll go elsewhere. Or maybe there will be a sign that says ‘Please Seat Yourself’. If that’s the case then I’ll let my friends decide. I prefer booths or tables that aren’t too close to the kitchen or the bathroom or the entrance, but I’d rather just let someone else choose. I’ll review the menu online in advance so that when it comes time to order, I’ll already have a pretty good idea of what I want.”

I usually don’t anticipate beyond that point, because by then we’re finally settled in at the restaurant, and everything usually goes smoothly from there. Situations like this, which are fairly straightforward, rarely backfire on me. But when they do, it really rattles my cage.

For example, I anticipated arriving an hour in advance for an important meeting because my stress level goes through the roof when I’m running late. As expected, I got there in plenty of time. But then I had anticipated killing that time by going into the nearby public library and using their bathroom and then reading a book. I had already checked on line and the library would be open. (Public libraries are an oasis for me. They’re usually quiet, and not overstimulating. If I could live in a library I would.)

But this was an unusually cold, snowy day, and when I got to the library, even though there appeared to be about 5 employees inside, they refused to open because they weren’t fully staffed. All the libraries in the county were closed. Many staff members couldn’t even get their cars out of their driveways.

Now, I get that life is full of surprises. I really do. And I’m guessing a neurotypical person would maybe be mildly disappointed by this unexpected glitch, but would pretty much take it in stride. But for me this was less of a stride and more of a stumble.

My brain tends to short circuit for a bit when things don’t go to plan. That, and I was already nervous about my upcoming meeting, and to make matters worse I really had to pee. I was in a part of town that I was unfamiliar with, so I kind of froze like a deer in headlights while I tried to figure out what to do.

Obviously, finding a bathroom was the top priority. So I went to my car, looked up convenience stores near me on my phone, and attempted to find relief in each one. I don’t know if it’s a COVID thing or a Pacific Northwest thing, but every place I went either claimed not to have a bathroom (gimme a break), or the bathroom was out of order or closed until further notice. Next, I tried gas stations. Same deal.

By this point the only option I could come up with was to walk behind one of the gas stations, go behind the dumpster, and… well, you get the idea. Blessed relief combined with repugnance and humiliation. I killed the rest of the time that needed killing by sitting in my car in some random parking lot, trying my best to calm down and not cry.

If I didn’t do my Autistic Anticipation thing, every experience would feel like the library one to me. Nothing can ever go to plan when there is no plan. So I plan.

The most problematic scenarios for me tend to be those that involve conversations with people. In my head, I say A, the person responds B, I reply C, and they react D. I draw my assumptions from past interactions with that person. I think, “She’s going to discount my suggestion because she often does,” or, “He’ll really enjoy this information, and will probably laugh with me about it.”

I’d say about 60 percent of the time the conversations go the way I expected them to. But when they don’t it tends to upset and/or confuse me. The worst case scenario is that I anticipate giving someone what I assume they’ll think is good news, only to find that it angers or upsets them instead. I bet you can practically see the smoke coming out of my ears at that point. Major system malfunction. What do I do now? Shut down. Reboot. And that tends to amplify the other person’s negative response.

Someone gently pointed out to me recently that I should allow people to tell me what they think rather than assuming I already know. Good point. Very good point. I wish it were that easy.

But I get knots in my stomach when I contemplate living in such a chaotic world. Imagine, people running around willy-nilly, thinking for themselves. How do people navigate such turmoil? I struggle to picture it.

My autism isn’t something that I can switch on or off at will. For me, autistic anticipation isn’t some mere personality flaw that I can just get over. It’s a survival skill.

My autistic masking/quick fix for this will be to try not to voice my assumptions in front of that person. But that adds to my stress and causes me to have to remember yet another rule. My brain is already jam packed with rules that I try to follow so as not to irritate the people around me. I’m better at this than most neurotypicals expect, but they also don’t understand how much energy I have to expend to keep up the facade. They see a blank expression on my face, but that’s because I’m focused on running on the autistic hamster wheel that is my thought process.

I’m a work in progress just as everyone else is. But at least I’m starting to familiarize myself with all my inner cogs and gears and how they function. That’s a step in the right direction, isn’t it?

I expect you’ll say yes. And just like that, there I go again, making assumptions. It’s practically a reflex at this point.

The ultimate form of recycling: Buy my book, read it, and then donate it to your local public library or your neighborhood little free library!


Author: The View from a Drawbridge

I have been a bridgetender since 2001, and gives me plenty of time to think and observe the world.

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