My “NO” Reflex

It’s Monday morning and The Scientist is off from work:

Him: Do you want to go to the diner for breakfast?
Me: No.

We never go to the diner on Monday. It’s not part of The Plan.

We’re hiking through a new trail system:

Him: That trail looks interesting. Let’s try it.
Me: I think we should stick to the route I planned.

I don’t even consider whether the other trail might be more interesting. It’s not in The Plan.

We’re driving home from a quick trip to the mall on Sunday afternoon:
Him: Let’s go to the movies!
Me: Β . . . .

That’s the sound of my head exploding. The Scientist, you see, is very spontaneous. I am not. He can decide on a whim to go to the movies. He’ll drive to the theater, pick something that looks decent and is playing soonish, and buy a ticket. Then he’ll find a way to kill time until the movie starts. And he might enjoy the movie or be a little bored or end up thinking it sucks, but he’ll have a good time regardless.

I don’t understand this. At all.

A movie is not part of my daily routine. It requires contingency planning. It raises many many questions that have to be answered before A Plan can be put into place. What will I see? When? Where? Can I get there in time? Will I have to wait? Will I be early enough to get The Right Seat? Do I want popcorn? How long will the movie run? Should I eat before? After? Where? How much time will that require?

And my response to all of these questions?


Do not want.

Too hard.

Let’s go home and sit quietly and think about maybe going to the movies tomorrow. When we have A Plan.

Yes, that’s much better.

I have a very strong NO reflex.

Do I want to do something that isn’t part of The Plan? NO

Do I want to unexpectedly deviate from the schedule? Serendipitously try something new? Alter, vary or disrupt my routine at the last minute? NO, NO , and NO

I don’t cope well with unexpected anything. With adequate warning, I manage change pretty well. I vary my schedule, go new places, and try new things without excess trepidation. I need enough lead time so I can mentally prepare myself but once I have a contingency plan, all systems are go.

Without enough warning, however, my instinctive response to anything not in The Plan, is NO. Often an emphatic and even angry NO. Yes, unplanned change makes me irrationally angry.

I don’t stop to consider whether the change might be better than what I’ve planned. I don’t weigh the pros and cons. I’m not easily persuaded. In fact, the more you try to persuade me, the more panicked I’ll start to feel.

And the stupidest part of my NO reflex is that the change often is better. Going out for breakfast with my husband on a Monday morning? That’s actually a great idea. The food would be good. We’d have enjoyable relaxing conversation. What’s not to like about it? Why does the fact that it’s Monday preclude me from enjoying something, well, enjoyable?

There is no good logical answer to this. My fictional Plan isn’t an etched-in-stone prescription for a happy life. It’s a coping mechanism. At times it’s helpful and at times it’s an impediment.

I suspect my NO reflex is related to the weak central coherence that’s a part of Asperger’s. Aspies tend to see the details where others see the whole. The Scientist perceives going to the movies as one cohesive thing. He’s a top-down kind of guy who expects the details to fall into place along the way.

Me? I see going to the movies–or any unexpected event–as a massive overwhelming collection of details. Each detail seems to set off a cascade of more details, creating a complex matrix of endless details, into which I’ll be sucked and never return . . .

Okay, so it’s not quite that bad. But it can feel that way at times.

Being Okay

Consciously thinking about my resistance to unexpected change has led to the idea of “being okay” with things.

When someone asks me to do something unexpectedly, I momentarily shush the NO reflex. I let my initial panic at this unexpected request subside, then I try to consider the options objectively.

Breakfast at the diner on a Monday?

okayEvidence in favor: spending time with my husband, good food, a relaxing start to the week, variety can be refreshing

Evidence against: cuts into my planned work time, higher fat/sugar breakfast might affect my mood temporarily, there may be some sensory overload to deal with

As much as I’m tempted to, I don’t allow myself to include “not in The Plan” as evidence against anything. I remind myself that I can “be okay” with doing something different. I don’t have to feel uncomfortable with an out-of-the-ordinary event.

I’ll admit, this doesn’t always work. Often I’m 80% okay and 20% uncomfortable. But that’s better than not going and beating myself up about it, which is also a strong reflex. It’s not like I enjoy raining on everyone’s parade. The other option–the one I used to force myself into–was reluctantly going and being 100% uncomfortable. Given how unhealthy both of my previous responses were, 20% uncomfortable looks pretty good.

I’m not ready for any unplanned trips to the movies, but I’m happy with the day-to-day decisions I make lately that aren’t an automatic NO. Sometimes I say yes and sometimes I say no. Each response is a conscious, mindful decision, not a reflexive reaction.

I used to feel guilty about my constant string of NOs. There were many and they had a negative effect on my life. I didn’t want to be a terminal spoilsport. I didn’t want to be so rigid about everything.

It wasn’t until I started to understand more about Asperger’s that I was able to make sense of my NO reflex. Before, I saw myself as negative and controlling. A lot of other people saw me that way too. Now I know that difficulty with change is an aspie trait and one that I don’t have to be confined by.

I can choose to say yes and I can choose to say no.

It’s not as simple as it sounds, but it’s worth the effort and the more I practice, the more natural it’s becoming.

49 thoughts on “My “NO” Reflex”

  1. Fantastic post, as always. I can relate to this so much! If there’s an unavoidable change of plan, my usual reaction is “NOPE NOPE NOPE NOPE NOPE… wait… it’s not that bad… actually, now that I think about it, this benefits me”. I just instinctively react against it without logically considering whether it’s good or bad. XD

    1. I’m finally getting to the “wait” part. For years it was just a big NO NO NO. Even this morning, I started going into hyper-detail mode during our apartment hunting and my husband just looked at me and said “top down first” and I remembered that we can work out the details later. πŸ™‚

  2. Great post. Rings true for me. Often in the car my wife says – I just want to stop at and get…. I am lik NOOOOOO. Cant cope. Irrational Anger. MeltingDOwn

  3. “That’s the sound of my head exploding.” Loved that. So very descriptive and succinct! πŸ™‚ What a great step it is to shine the light on your “no” reflex. I think awareness is the first step to reducing the reflex. As always, great post!

  4. This! This is one of the biggest issues I have. It was so good to find out that I wasn’t the only one and that I wasn’t actually a controlfreakbitch, I just had a hard time adjusting to anything spur of the moment. And seriously, the movie things really wigs me out – I mean who decides to do that? I can handle picking something up on the way home, especially if I can sit in the car, but wanting me to enjoy myself spontaneously?! NO! Movies and other entertainment has to be planned for me to be able to enjoy. But I’m trying to unclench and enjoy things a little bit more.

    1. The spontaneous movie going! I can’t even. On that particular day, my husband ended up dropping me off at home and going to see a movie by himself. πŸ™‚ That sounds terrible but we were both fine with it.

      Practicing trying to enjoy things more actually seems to be working for me, though slowly.

    2. Movie trips have to be a) planned at least a day in advance, and b) give me enough time to read a synopsis so I don’t get surprised by anything in the movie. If those aren’t available, a movie is not possible for me.

  5. I think it is the ‘dislike change’ aspect. I have the same problem in my marriage, and find it is one of the most stressing aspects of being married. My husband is spontaneous, restless and entrepreneurial, and I find even good suggestions very stressing, when they come suddenly and change the expected course of events (even when I say no!).

    1. Yes, sometimes saying no doesn’t seem to be enough to alter the course of events when your spouse is set on doing something. We sometimes just agree to go about things separately, though if it’s a life course type of thing, that can be impossible.

      1. Thanks for replying!

        I actually meant that even when the suggested event is turned down and doesn’t happen, it is still stressing. It was said = it exists! in my mind at least, and I’m busy imagining the event and its possible impacts on other agenda points or our situation overall.

        I try to compromise as much as I can, but I also insist that plans should be presented at least the day before, smaller tasks (‘can you do this and this today’) latest first thing in the morning, and preferably with longer lead time.

        And I hate to get a phone call like this: ‘Are you home? I am coming home in 10 min. I bought a freezer 50 km outside the city, and I need your help to pick it up. Be ready in 10 min!’
        I want to help, but the ‘in 10 min’ part destroys my grip on the day.

        1. Oh, I get what you mean. Yes, even the introduction of a possible change can mess up your flow. If I say no, I also tend to start second-guessing myself because I figure the other person wouldn’t have asked if they didn’t think it was important or something they wanted to do. Ack! Just thinking about thinking about it is stressful.

  6. Excellent post! I have tried to put these kinds of processes and feelings into words many times, and I am delighted that you have done it πŸ™‚ Thank you!

  7. Out of curiosity, are you aware of your “NO” reflex having been different when you were a child? I was thinking: children usually rely on adults to come up with plans (what movie will we see/when/where/when will we eat/etc), so what would this aspect of Aspergers look like for children?

    1. In children this manifests itself in a refusal to try new foods, to go places that they weren’t warned about ahead of time, or to deviate from those plans in any way shape or form.

      I have autistic twin boys at home who have to get a complete run down of what will occur during the day every day. I have a set routine to follow to get their days started & if I try to change it they have massive meltdowns.

      I allow my children a fair amount of control in their lives & I enjoy the routine myself, being autistic as well, but I do make it a point to push us all out of our comfort zone at times because I know we need to. They have to learn to cope with changes to their Plans because life has plenty of unexpected events.

      I guess I just wanted to say it is very similar for children. I know I was a “difficult” child because I never wanted to try anything new either. I do better now unless I’m majorly stressed. πŸ™‚

    2. Fogotten pretty much covered how this looked for me as a child. My home was pretty routine-oriented and my parents gave me some leeway regarding not wanting to eat or do certain things, which helped a lot.

      There were two places I ran into trouble. The worst was when friends suddenly wanted to change something, like the rules of a game. That usually led to a shouting match and the end of our playing together if I couldn’t get my way. The other was vacations. Going on vacation was a huge loss of structure and control. Many of our family vacations were interrupted when I came down with a mysterious physical ailment–severe headache, high fever, fainting, stiff neck, stomach ailment. I saw emergency rooms and walk-in clinics all over the Eastern seaboard as a kid and every time the doctors had no explanation and every time the problem cleared up as soon as we got home. Looking back, I think it was the stress of all that unexpected change.

  8. Wonderful post (as usual by you!).

    I don’t tend to consciously notice it, but if I think back, I have this happen as well. I can make certain types of plans with only hours to spare (going out for coffee and the like), but something like going out to a movie, where there’s LIGHT and SOUND and likely headache-production? That I definitely need to Plan for.

    Part of this is, I think, because I’ve built up coping mechanisms over the years. I don’t know what I used to be like as a child (though I’m planning to ask my mother about that), but having people who were occasionally spontaneous around got me to be willing to do some things spontaneously. (And, of course, there was always impulse visits to book or electronics stores. πŸ˜‰ )

    But yes, for the most part, I still need A Plan. And it doesn’t help that I tend to be reluctant to leave the house if there’s a chance that I’ll end up rather uncomfortable (too hot, or overloaded, or the like).

    Anyway, my two cents on reading!

    πŸ˜‰ tagAught

    1. Forgotten left a great comment up above about how this might look in childhood. I think it’s responsible for kids with ASD coming across as bossy and controlling and tantrum-y. I was definitely the first one. πŸ™‚

      That’s a great point about some places being harder to go at the last minute due to potential sensory overload. I’m a lot more like to agree to spontaneously going for coffee at a place I know well than to agree to an unexpected trip to the mall.

  9. Brilliant piece!

    Having only read the first 3 paragraphs, I asked the hubby, who’s next to me, to read the conversations and asked if they reminded him of someone he knew, haha πŸ™‚

    Hubby has learned to stop asking me if I want to see a movie right now, I hate the idea because what if I don’t like the movie and everything you listed (!), I can’t just leave the cinema if I don’t like it, if I started something I need to finish it.

    So now, he would plant an idea in my head first – giving me plenty of time to warm to it, as usual I would have the idea all planned out as if it has already happened. Hubby now have the problem of me “changing” the plan in my head and forgetting to tell him πŸ˜›

  10. I am so incredibly bad about this. My boyfriend and I were actually arguing over this earlier in the week because he asked if I wanted to go to Panera, and my instant response was “no”. I need to plan out everything before I do it. I flipped out at school the other day because the library wasn’t open at 7.30 when it was supposed to be (according to the sign), and I was reminded by Javier that not everyone is as regimented as I am. I am trying to not be so stiff about doing things, but without a day or two of forethought, I instantly react strongly and negatively. I need to look at the menu or movie list ahead time and figure out when and how early I need to leave to get there at least 10-15 minutes early. A change of plans is like the worst thing in my world most of the time and the most petty usually.

    1. I can’t stand it when places aren’t open according to schedule, especially if I’ve planned an activity around it. Also the menu thing! I get so anxious if I end up in a place where I’m not familiar with the menu and have to choose on the spot. Argh.

      It’s nice to at least know that we’re not alone in this and it’s not some “quirk” that we could just fix if we tried harder. It seems really seriously hardwired in our brains.

      1. The internet is my best friend. Every time I plan on going somewhere new I look up the menu on google. It makes me less anxious when I get there, so I don’t feel like I’m holding up the ordering process.

        1. Yes, and Yelp is my favorite app because people talk about not only the food but the atmosphere, etc. so I can gauge if place will be too crowded, noisy, slow-paced, etc. Hooray for tons of information!

  11. Interesting. I am a person who absolutely thrives on spontanaiety good or bad, just love trying to figure it out on the fly. Whereas my partner – also aspie- also has a very strong NO reflex. Before we had the correct understanding of her neurology we both used to just say she “rained on my parades a lot, but not everyday is in need of a parade”. But, we are such a perfect yin yang for each other. She keeps me from jumping into all kinds of ridiculous things I might live to regret and I -hopefully- give her a much needed push out of her comfort zone.

    1. I’m going to start telling my husband that “not every day is in need of parade” because that’s awesome. πŸ™‚ You summed up pretty much how things work around here too. We balance each other out, more so now that I’m learning to be more flexible. And that occasional push out of the comfort zone is so important.

  12. Oh my. I can totally relate. My husband, my older son, and I are all on the spectrum, so it can get a bit complicated. Luckily, we are all pretty flexible in that none of us has rigid routines that absolutely must be followed. But, all of us have trouble with spontaneity. We are all more likely to say “no”, at least at first. My younger son is more of a “the grass is always greener” type. He can be doing most anything and we can say “Let’s go!” and he will jump up to go no matter where we are going. Maybe it is just that he isn’t the “Give me a little while to think about this, process it, realize that going to the toy store sounds like more fun than cleaning the bathroom” type that the rest of us are. My older son almost always refuses to go until the last possible second when he suddenly decides that going sounds like an okay idea.

    Vacation planning is a nightmare. I am currently planning a trip to Universal Orlando. It is complicated by having one child with autism, one with ADHD and SPD, two Aspie parents (one also with SPD and fibromyalgia), and an elderly grandmother who uses a wheelchair. This is a group that requires MAJOR planning, and I am obsessive about it. I have spent weeks reading everything I can get ahold of to create a plan. But, I also know that with this group, plans fall apart quickly. So, I have to make sure to build plenty of flexibility into the plan. Someone is going to get tired and overwhelmed, probably multiple someones. I can’t create a full touring plan, even though I would love to know exactly what we are going to for the whole trip. I have to remember that there will be rides that one or both kids won’t want to do and other rides that they will insist on riding over and over again. Creating just the right amount of framework to try to keep everyone happy is very hard.

    1. Oh wow, you really have your hands full with planning that vacation. I always make sure to plan in lots of downtime for our vacation. We went to Disney World recently and I scheduled afternoon rest time into every day to be sure I didn’t end up cranky and miserable. It’s kind of odd to need to put myself down for an afternoon nap like a toddler but whatever works, right?

  13. I am a little of both; I can become extremely agitated when my agenda becomes compromised, and, I can through it all to the wind, say “to heck with it, let’s go!”. I dunno. I am middle-aged. Time is slowly slipping away from being on “my side”. One thing I learned is that I really did miss out on many good times when I was younger because I said “no”. I might have to say it through clenched teeth, but you know what? The movie might be really good. And even if it royally sucked, and I can say, “see, I told you so! I knew I should have stayed home!”, it still provides for interesting conversation covering all the reasons why it was so lame. But you know what, too, I don’t want to live a boring life.

    As to the menu thing: I could literally spend all day, not kidding, trying to decide what to order. I usually just go with what-ever item I thought of first. Or I ask my SO to pick a number, then order the corresponding menu item. Or I flip a coin. How’s is that for being spontaneous? Seriously, a coin toss. The decision to purchase this laptop I am typing on right now was decided by coin toss. And the decision to get a laptop instead of a desktop…yup…a coin toss as well….

    1. I think I’m moving more in that direction. Sometimes I can be very spontaneous, but other times I can’t move an inch. Often it feels like it’s related to my overall condition. If I’m feeling pretty good in general, it’s easier to be spontaneous, whereas if I’m overloaded, I’ll just turtle up and avoid everything to conserve energy.

      Flipping a coin to decide between a laptop or desktop is extremely brave! I hope you’re happy with the outcome. Or that it just didn’t matter. πŸ™‚

  14. I used to be very resistant to change in a general sense when I was younger, but some events forcefully happened to me high school that sort of changed (ha) that. One way that this really stands out for me is that in high school, I went to this absolutely awful high school (a boy once spit in my hair. of course I didn’t confront him or tell anyone, cause why would I do that?? /sarcasm) and I had the opportunity to start attending a charter school. By all accounts this sounded like an exciting good idea, and even with anxiety over adapting to a new situation, etc. I still had nothing going for me at my current school (no friends, wasn’t at all physically or emotionally comfortable there, not academically challenged) and the pros all far outweighed the cons. I still had a meltdown as the process was moving forward and in the end refused to go, which really annoyed my mother. Flash forward to now and before graduating high school I had attended four different schools! And then the summer following I was an exchange student in China. Around the time of the third school I became sort of gung-ho about big changes like that, so even though I didn’t really need to I did switch to a new school yet again for my senior year. I guess this attitude sort of developed from forced exposure of having to transition schools three times before (not gonna go into all the why though) and realizing that in the end it worked out for me really well. Change, spontaneous adventure, new challenges – I realized they could all be good. And the studying abroad thing I believe very much is a result of my intense special interests managing to override my anxiety, even in such an extreme way. Being in China…I didn’t really have a problem, I knew Chinese, the culture, and most importantly had been researching so much about studying abroad in general for the past four years. I had the scripts for that. Going through the airport on the other hand sent me through major fits of anxiety for months before and every time I had to do it! The thought still does. Go live in a foreign country for a while? Check. Go through an airport? Get me off this ride!

    But even though my attitude towards large changes is different now, what’s interesting is the small changes are still so hard. Logically you think if you could do the big stuff, the small stuff would become cake, right? I guess not. One example is when I was home recently over spring break there was a movie out I really wants to go see with my older brother. But every time I would ask him about when we could maybe go see it he couldn’t give me an answer because his schedules with school and work and other stuff were up in the air. But then several times over the next few weeks he would come into my room and say we could go see it now, or we would be out doing something else and realize we had some more time and he’d ask if I wanted to see it then. And every time I would say no. Which increasingly became frustrating for him because then within the next day or two I would go to him and lament “why haven’t we gotten to go see that movie yet?” And he’d respond “we could have gone to see it the other day but you said no!” Eventually we did see it, but I really needed the activity planned in advance! Being told out of nowhere that we could go see it “now” would throw me for a loop and I couldn’t imagine it.

    Apologies that I wrote such a long first post here! I will keep them short next time.

    1. You make a great point about how realizing that multiple options can potentially be good makes change easier. I’ve been trying to use this more actively to deal with unexpected changes (like your movie saga!) and it does help.

      And I’ve enjoyed reading your comments. It’s always nice to hear from a new reader!

  15. You linked to this on your backstopping post so I thought I’d give it at read, turns out I can seriously relate.
    Although for me it’s something I’ve been coping with since I was a child. They diagnosed me with ODD (oppositional defiance disorder) and because of this I was taught at an early age to question my urge to say no, and make pro/con lists much the way you do, rather than just follow my gut. (Of course they couldn’t not, because I do fit the ODD diagnosis and will say no especially often to authority figures, at this time this included teachers trying to educate me and my parents.)

    This urge, of course, didn’t go away. (I’ve heard some people say ODD is a childhood disorder but that seems silly to me. I mean yes a persistent and defining characteristic of a person could just vanish as they grew up, but doesn’t that seem unlikely?)

    So at this point I weigh pros and cons, sometimes I have to say maybe. I learned the hard way that, just because it’s not no, shouldn’t mean it’s yes. (People asking things from me can be both reasonable and not in my best interests.)
    I think in my case that my urge to say no is more than just an urge to keep to pre-prepared plans as yours is, although I have that too.
    On the other hand it seems that most people with ODD don’t have the urge to say no to things that they actually would otherwise desire to do, where as I do have that.
    Sometimes I will have the desire to say yes to something at the exact same time as an urge to say no. Sometimes I’m very emotionally torn about doing A Thing, which is why I’m glad I rely on evidence based living instead of just gut feelings – weighing things logically is so much easier than trying to sort out all my messy emotions just to make a choice.
    Maybe I’ve been hit with a double whammy of ODD no urges along with Aspie no urges? I’m not certain, but maybe this explains the other half of the times I want to say no which aren’t explained by ODD. Hmm… Things to think about.

    1. People asking things from me can be both reasonable and not in my best interests.

      This is so true and something that took me a long time to learn. I’m not really a fan of ODD diagnoses in children, especially autistic children, because I think it can create a lot of issues with a child’s autonomy and agency if “no” itself becomes pathologized. But I also see the need for learning a system of considering options and not reacting with a blanket “no” to everything that happens. It sounds like you’re making good progress on finding ways to cope with your various “no reflexes” in spite of them being strong and persistent. I’ve found my progress to be nonlinear, but overall I’m more open to “yes” and am becoming comfortable with “maybe.” πŸ™‚

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