Adulting for Autistics: Managing Expectations

Adulting for Autistics is a series about practical life skills to help autistic adults live independently and build good relationships. Some of this is stuff I’ve learned the hard way over the years, and some I’m still learning. If there’s something you’d like to see addressed in this series, let me know in the comments!

Expectations are a big deal for autistic people.  We need to know what’s going to happen, what to expect, in order to feel secure and safe.  When things happen that we weren’t expecting, it causes us stress, which can then overwhelm us and cause a meltdown.  And just for the record, we don’t like that any more than our NT loved ones do.  Meltdowns aren’t fun, and we’d like to avoid them as much as possible.  One way we can do that is by managing our expectations. 

Usually, when we get overwhelmed, it’s because something didn’t go according to our expectations.  We’ve played out the situation in our minds several times, and we’ve established a script or a pattern that we expect it to follow in real life.  But then, something deviates from our script and we can’t handle it because we didn’t plan for any contingencies.  

It’s all about alternatives

The key to managing expectations is to allow for various outcomes.  Instead of only envisioning one possible scenario, we need to learn to imagine several possibilities and find a way to be ok with each one.  I know, this is much easier said than done, but it’s important to living as a functional adult. 

Let me walk you through it with an easy example.  Let’s say that you’re craving a milkshake, so you go to McDonald’s.  You’re so set on that milkshake you can already taste it – but when you get there, the machine is down, so you can’t buy one.  In that moment, do you start to crumble?  I get it!  You had run the scenario in your head: go to the restaurant, order your favorite flavor, take your first sip as you walk out the door.  It was going to be so great!  But there wasn’t any room for deviation from your plan, so in that moment, all seems lost.  This is how an autistic person can end up in a meltdown over a milkshake, even when we know, outside of that moment, that it’s irrational. 

Plan for Plan B

Once you’ve calmed down from the meltdown, you’ll surely realize that you could have just gone somewhere else for your milkshake.  The problem was that you didn’t think about it beforehand, so you didn’t include a Plan B in your expectations.  What if, when you ran your first scenario, you had then run another one in which you weren’t able to get your milkshake at McDonald’s?  In this imagining, it goes: go to the restaurant, order your favorite flavor, hear that they can’t make any milkshakes, go to another restaurant, order, and then enjoy your milkshake.  The simplest thought – “If I can’t get a shake at McDonald’s, I’ll go get one at Sonic” – can change your whole experience.  NT’s can make those kinds of adjustments on the fly quite easily, but those of us on the spectrum need to make these alternatives part of our expectations beforehand.        

A more complex example might be a time when you’ve planned to hang out with several friends or family, with no particular plans for activity.  You might have it in your head that the group will go have dinner at a restaurant you like, you’ll eat your favorite dish, and then you’ll all go have drinks at your favorite bar and play pool.  But then maybe someone suggests another place to eat, or the group would rather play board games at someone’s house.  If you didn’t account for the possibility of something other than your plan happening, you risk having a really bad time and maybe alienating your friends. 

Managing expectations reduces our stress

In both the examples I’ve given, life not adhering to our expectations ends with an autistic person being stressed and then either melting down or having to use all their coping ability to hold it together and therefore being drained.  This is not how we should have to live!  By changing the way we think about things beforehand and managing our expectations, we can save ourselves so much stress and make life so much easier for ourselves.  Less stress = better coping = fewer meltdowns and more comfort!     

This is NOT all or nothing!

I am not saying that we should capitulate to others or that it’s our responsibility to anticipate everything others might say or do.  I am saying that we should aim to broaden our expectations so that we have two or three options that we can be ok with.  Managing expectations doesn’t mean not expecting anything.  It just means being able to say “If X happens instead of Y, I’ll be ok” or “If A or B happens, I won’t be devastated”.   

You don’t have to be ok with all possible outcomes – just more than one.  And you don’t have to be able to do this in all situations, especially not all at once.  It’s a skill, and it takes practice.  As you get better at it, you’ll experience less stress and you’ll be less drained by unexpected situations. 

Managing expectations is a big part of adulting, and it does take work.  But we can all do it, and life goes a lot more smoothly when we do. 

Managing expectations reduces stress and leads to fewer meltdowns

Do you have any tips for learning to manage your expectations?  What situations challenge you the most?  How far have you come in managing your expectations, and how much have you reduced your stress?

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