Adulting for Autistics: Handling Emergencies

Last weekend, I had an awful experience.  I’d taken my car in to get some maintenance done, and then, a few hours later, something broke and the car overheated and became undrivable.  This was Saturday evening, of course, so nothing could be done until Monday morning.   

Now I know exactly nothing about cars or even how to get them fixed, so naturally, I panicked.  Luckily, I do have a friend (Hi, Josh!) who knows about cars and could help me stay calm-ish through everything and remind me that panicking would be very unproductive.  The car did get fixed, and I don’t really trust that shop anymore, but that’s not my point here. 

The last time I had any kind of car trouble was years ago, and I had a similar reaction. One morning, my car refused to crank.  My mind went completely blank because it just couldn’t deal with the unexpectedness of it.  As far as my brain knew, you turn the key, the car cranks up.  Anything else was unthinkable (there’s that autistic rigid thinking, I guess).  I was so lost in that moment that the following conversation happened in my head: 

The car won’t start.  Why won’t it start? 

It must be broken. 

Well it has to be fixed!  Who fixes cars? 

…ummm…uummm……Mechanics!  Mechanics fix cars! 

Right, mechanics!  Where’s a mechanic? 

…..ummmm…..I don’t know 

(There’s a mechanic shop on the corner a couple of blocks away that I drive past literally every day, but I was so blanked out, I couldn’t think of it.) 

It took me 20 minutes and a call to my mother to figure out that I needed to call a tow to get my car to the shop.  I think my brain started working properly again sometime that night.  That was when I realized I needed to learn how to handle emergencies. 

Start When You’re Calm

After I’d calmed down from that “who fixes cars” debacle, I grabbed an index card and wrote out the information I’d needed in the moment: the mechanic shop’s name and contact information, a reputable and affordable towing company, my insurance company’s roadside assistance number, and even information on a local body shop for cosmetic issues.  I folded up the card and wrote “CAR TROUBLE” on one side, and it lives in my wallet to this day.  If I have car trouble, I know it’s there to tell me who to call. 

You can make similar lists for other issues.  Living in an apartment, most of my home issues can be solved with “call maintenance”, but if you live in a house, you’ll want to have the numbers for the electric, water, and cable providers handy.  You might also want instructions on how to turn off your main water valve, or a reminder of where your breaker box is (I always forget that).  Make sure to include names and numbers of any family or friends you would need to call in an emergency.  

It’s important to make these lists when you’re NOT in the midst of a crisis so that you can think clearly and remember details.  That way, when the crisis hits, you only have to remember to look at your list.  

Don’t Panic

As The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy taught us, Don’t Panic.  Believe me, I KNOW how hard this is!  But panicking does not help anything get fixed.  Plus, it’s exhausting.  Half the hangover we get after a crisis is being worn out from worry.  Stay as calm as you can throughout whatever is going on and you’ll feel much better afterward. 

First, make sure you’re safe.  Get somewhere you’re not exposed to the elements, in no danger of fire or flood or the like, and preferably not stranded on the side of the road.  Then call or text your people – family or friends who can help or keep you calm while you go through your list of what to do.  Above all, keep breathing.   

Try Not to Imagine the Worst

Catastrophizing is a favorite pastime of many autistic brains, but all it does is make us feel worse.  It takes a lot of mental energy to stop the snowball of “everything’s going to go wrong” thoughts, and sometimes it feels easier to just let them run you over.  But being able to step back and look at a situation rationally is a mark of maturity and an important adulting skill.  I struggle with this all the time.  (Confidentially, I actually had another wrench thrown in my plans in the middle of writing this post and it set me off.)   

My first step in learning not to catastrophize was just learning to catch myself doing it – some days that’s still all I can manage.  The next step is accepting the possibility that the worst might not happen, which sounds tiny, but is a big step.  Then (and this is where I’m currently stuck) comes acknowledging that a good outcome is just as likely as a bad one.  I’m still working on this process, but the better I get at it, the better I function as an adult, especially in emergencies. 

Talk to Your People

If you’re panicked, you’re not thinking clearly.  This is a good time to go to someone you trust who can think calmly through your situation.  I’m not saying let other people tell you what to do – just let their cooler heads help you.  For example, when I lost my job, I was so upset I couldn’t even think of what I needed to do as far as unemployment or anything, so I went to my mother and asked her to make me a list of the next steps.  She could think clearly and calmly while I was stewing and panicking.  In an ideal world, you could have a designated person to call in crisis situations who can keep a cool head for you.  In reality, it’s probably best to have a list of a few people.  After all, my mother wouldn’t have been any help with my car issues last week. 

As an adult, you’re going to have to handle emergencies, it’s just a fact.  They’re stressful for everyone, and they’re especially bad for autistic adults since we have more difficulty adapting to new situations.  But you can handle them by not panicking and letting others with cooler heads help you.  I believe in you – you got this! 

I believe in you
This tiny octopus believes in you, too!

Do you have any tips for handling emergencies?  Any tricks for avoiding panic and meltdowns in a crisis? What do you do to keep yourself from catastrophizing? 

Adulting for Autistics Handling Emergencies

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