It’s Monday morning and The Scientist is off from work:
Him: Do you want to go to the diner for breakfast?
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: . . . .
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.
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.
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?
Evidence 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.