This week I’m taking a break from talking about depression in order to focus on a more executive function-related topic: preparation. How do I, as an autistic person, prepare for potentially stressful situations? I haven’t found a lot in the literature about autistic preparation strategies, though I’m happy to be proven wrong. As usual, please let me know your preparation strategies in the comments. I would love to find out more about your preparation strategies.
The reason I’m writing about this topic now is for three reasons.
One, because I will be returning to work on Monday, for at least a week. I will be doing face-to-face teaching for the first time since March. That’s a big change compared to the past five months and though I’m very excited to be teaching again, I am also apprehensive. It’s a big change and as much as I am looking forward to being back in the classroom, things are different. My school is an English Language school that teaches students from across the world. This means that we have to have exceptional safety measures for students and staff against Covid. There may also be last-minute changes to timetables. That’s both ok and reasonable, considering the circumstances; all I need to be is aware that it’s happening so I can prepare for different outcomes.
Second, my partner and I have found a new place to live and we will be moving in early September. For that reason, I am also looking for a new job as well as more autistic training work in the Reading area. All that change and uncertainty is not easy, as much as I am looking forward to it.
Third, August is Bookmonth for me. As some of you know, I have a novel on the go that I need to finish and send to a literary agent. I will have to email her with the excuse that I’ve spent the last two years doing autistic activism instead of sitting down and finishing the book. My deadline is August 31st, on that day, whatever happens, I will send out an email with the manuscript. Please irritate me with messages of well-wishes, it’s going to be emotional. If you’re autistic and you’d like to help proof-read/sensitivity read, email me and we’ll talk about it.
7 Tips on Preparation
So, what do I do to make sure I am well enough to prepare for potentially stressful situations?
When I find out about something happening in the future, I need to prepare. If I don’t and wing it, I am making myself vulnerable to stress and meltdowns. Winging it increases my anxiety levels, too, which make any event twice as draining as it would be with preparation. Note: I cannot take all the stress away from a social event. As I’m autistic, no event will be inherently stress-free or lack the potential for escalation.
So, here are my seven steps for preparing for a potentially stressful event.
#1 – Organise
Step one is my daybook. I write out my responsibilities and food diary a few weeks in advance. I think about what times I’ll exercise and visualise what I’ll do. As I’ll be teaching again on Monday, I will go in early that day to get comfortable with being in the space and prepare my classes. Also, I wrote ‘Bookmonth’ as a checkable item in my ‘To do-list’ for every day in August and a last check box on August 31st, for me to tick off when I’d sent the manuscript. For the housemove, I made sure I put all the admin I could think of in the book, including ‘Packing’ from 1st September until the day we’re moving.
#2 – Plan
I will visualise what I’ll be doing, relying on my memory of previous, similar experiences. I will outline the probable worst-case scenario. This is different from catastrophising, as I look at what is reasonably the worst thing that could happen. I also make sure I have moments away from all the people. Being around human beings is inherently tiring for me, satisfying as it can be.
If the activity is longer-term, such as Bookmonth, I lay out the amount of work I need to do and how much time I might have to put in on a daily basis. I know now that I cannot expect myself to simply spend entire days behind a laptop tapping away. I need to fill my day with other things in order to be productive. The time I spend not writing is just as important as the time I spend writing.
#3 – Settle in
I then make sure I can spend the rest of the day engaging in things that allow me to recuperate: rest, sleep, eating (at set times), special interests, exercise. The better to deal with the inevitable surprises. This part is actually the most important of all of them. It clears my mind and puts me in the right headspace to fulfill a certain task; for instance, finishing a novel. I chose the term ‘Settle in’ because it feels like being tucked into bed, mentally. It is like a cloud passing over the sun, in a way that is not like depression, but associated with it. It’s me preparing.
A side-effect of finishing a plan too early, though, can be that I feel like I’m stuck in limbo, not being able to put into practice what I’d just prepared. I don’t have a solution for that right now, because if I don’t put a plan in place soon after I learn about an upcoming activity, my anxiety simply grows and bubbles away. All I can do then is distract myself. I won’t get rid of bubbling uncertainty until after the event. And that’s ok for now.
#4 – Use strategies that work
Actually following through with a plan is inherently nerve-wracking. Nine times out of ten, those plans involve being around other, new, human beings. I need to mask around them, in order to make things go smoothly. I make sure to step back from potential problems. I will only push an argument if people’s lives depend on it. In my line of work, that’s still a considerable amount of confrontations that I’ll have to have, as much as I hate them.
I have a set of stories that I know will make people laugh and the capacity to improvise, both of which gives me a moment to regroup and know that at least I’m not irritating people right there and then. More recently, I’ve also allowed myself to be quiet, as I know I’ve worked hard enough at ingratiating myself with others. People will just be ok with me slightly fading into the background after I’ve made my mark.
I have also assigned a word to de-escalate potential conflicts, that word is ‘Okapi’. When anyone says ‘Okapi’ and then the topic, such as ‘Politics’, we are no longer talking about that topic. I chose Okapi because the Okapi is so ridiculous¹ that any conflict immediately falls to the wayside after it being mentioned.
#5 – Use socially acceptable ways to build up strength
When things inevitably prop up that I couldn’t have expected, I need to have ways to control my sensory experience and how I come across socially, to prevent meltdowns. Stimming is the most important thing, here. I use inauspicious ways of relaxing my mind, such as tapping the backs of my teeth with my tongue, gently rubbing my fingers together, humming and singing softly, flapping lightly and stretching. There are stims, however, that are not socially appropriate. Make sure that you have several that could be used in either context. For some autistic people. taking off your clothes can be a great way to sensorily relax, but not at a birthday party that’s not explicitly nudist. Pick your battles, that’s all I can say.
Some – but not all! – special interests can be used to relax in social contexts. For me, I can write on my phone or sit down with a notebook, I can practice Japanese on Duolingo or read a book. Singing loudly, though, is not always appropriate. Again, pick your battles.
Sensory overstimulation can also not always be planned for. Then, use the same strategies as for socio-emotional overload.
#6 – Take time to escape
People are tiring, but going to the toilet for no reason other than to breathe and sit down in the dark for a minute and a half is no crime. Phones are also excellent excuses to take a few seconds to send a message to a friend, check emails or simply google images of dogs (other animals are available). When I’m tired, I make my excuses and leave. It may be awkward, but staying and getting even more exhausted can lead to meltdowns and therefore will require even longer recovery time.
#7 – Rest afterwards
Make sure that the next day can be a full day’s rest if possible. That could include exercise or special interests, but if the day was particularly stressful, it could be a duvet day, watching bad TV. Again, exercise and special interests give spoons, but there’s an entry fee. If you don’t have the entry fee, there won’t be recovery either. Resting is not fun or satisfying for me, but if I don’t, I’ll just have to rest longer on a subsequent day, start vomiting or be highly vulnerable to meltdowns and shutdowns, all requiring even longer recovery times.
Yesterday my partner’s father turned 60 and I was there all day. The day before had been a busy one, with several online job interviews; but when my partner came home, I asked him to double-check the exact time we were expected. I also asked him how many people were going to be there. I then planned out the next morning. I would be doing the hoovering but not the washing as we’d be gone before the cycle finished and the washing would choke. I also knew that we’d have to get some shopping done. I laid out my clothes for the next day and set my alarm. I then allowed myself to crash, knowing I had my plan sorted.
On the day, as often happens, I woke up just before my alarm. I finished everything I needed to do, and played music I could sing along to. Singing is a stim for me, this helped. I also packed fruit, two bottles of water, my sunglasses and, most importantly, our facemasks. My partner struggles with preparation and time-keeping, so I kept him to time and we were out at exactly the time I set out for us. The inevitable surprise was a change in lockdown regulations, which could be a problem for the afternoon’s punting session (it’s an Oxford thing. Look it up). I tried to look up whether it would affect us, but said “if they don’t want us, they will simply tell us to go home again”. This was the worst-case scenario. If that happened, we would simply go back home. The outcome then would be a few more hours with my partner and his family.
I had a really great time, but it was tiring. I had to be on all day. I had prepared for a full day of masking. I knew that was going to be tiring, but I also know that my partner’s parents know me and know that I need time alone to recuperate. I was able to be friendly and occasionally amusing. I did not have to prove myself. Just being present was enough. When other people initiated a discussion about homelessness, I made my point (all homeless people should immediately be housed, no questions asked) and when things looked to escalate, my partner and I Okapi’d.
My partner and I had a short walk after lunch, which was more stressful for him than it was for me, because there were so many people crowding around the side of the river. This was a useful way to get some space in the middle of the day, that he and I had discussed the day before in passing.
Later, we went out punting. I knew that there was to be another family, whom I had met only once, in passing. Being in the boat was a bit stressful, because I couldn’t go anywhere but I loved being on the river and focused on the sky, on the birds around the river and on what the wind felt like. The sun was harsher and it was hotter than it had said on BBC Weather the day before. Taking my sunglasses was very useful but I realised my skin was burning. The sunglasses helped with the visual overload but I had to be quieter to cope with my skin burning, which I feel intensely. Happily, no-one minded.
After we came back to his parents’ house, I took some time to be alone. I practised Japanese and did about 45 minutes of writing. To be able to fulfil my own expectations for Bookmonth, I had to work on the book in some way. We had dinner, in which I was mostly quiet. I realised I was eating too much because I had burnt out. I needed the calories to cycle home. We left before anyone else, stopping off to get shopping in town. I was exhausted. We got everything we needed, but the check-out machine was being unnecessarily difficult. I stepped back and let my partner figure out what to do. I stepped back about three paces and breathed. I knew that I could have a meltdown if I didn’t, so instead of powering through, I let go. We cycled home and I crashed into bed, took off my sweaty t-shirt, applied after-sun and played Animal Crossing. I curled up and got to sleep relatively early.
Today, I have few things on my to-do list. This blog, doing some writing (at least 30 minutes), duolingo and the washing. The rest of the day I will use to prepare for next week’s inevitable surprises.
In conclusion, lots of things could have gone wrong yesterday, but they didn’t. It was a perfect day. What many people misunderstand is that needing preparation time is not the same as not enjoying something. I need preparation time for anything I’m going to do, however much I enjoy it. It is how I keep myself sane and functional.
Thanks for reading, I can’t wait to hear what you have to add about your preparation strategies. Please get in touch about what you’d like to read about in this blog. Do you want me to go back to talking about depression? Would you like to read more about productivity? I can’t wait to hear from you. Hopefully, then, I will have video of me co-charing a panel at Autistica’s Discover Conference last month.
In the meantime, I love you all and see you next week!
¹ I apologise wholeheartedly to the Okapi-community. But, come on. Google Okapi Tongue. Need I say more?