Interwoven in so many of my posts and comments about aspergers has been the notion of aspie reactions to life, the universe and everything. It always seems to be reactions, have you noticed that? The aspie, in defence as usual. This is because we don't often expect the outcomes we're presented with, so we do end up defending ourselves against yet another surprise.
This is why aspies don't like surprises - every blooming day has them and they're very rarely nice. I don't mean that every day I open the post and I've won the Reader's Digest draw or there is a bunch of flowers from a secret admirer on the front step. Neither do I mean that people shower me with unexpected compliments or the cake turns out better than expected.
No, I mean the kind of surprises that are small enough to act like bullets, slipping through the mithril vest of aspergers and into the defenseless heart.
The sort of surprise that happens in conversations with people who should know better, where you get something wrong and they laugh at you. You like them and they like you so why did they laugh? That's a surprise. Or realising in the middle of the queue that you left your card at home and have 23 pence and a button to pay for the load of shopping already travelling along the conveyor - that's a surprise too. Or suddenly remembering the you're meant to be picking the kids up from school and you're already ten minutes late.
All these masquerade as surprises, dear reader. They pretend to be small and innocuous little surprises, the kind of things people brush off and say 'it doesn't matter', 'it's not important'. In the grand scheme, they aren't important, I can see that. I can even tell myself that at the time. In the region of the heart, where the nasty little beggars have found a way through, they do hurt and they do matter.
They are not surprises, they are little shocks.
I'm not talking about proper shocks, like the roof falling in or finding out the hard way there are loose wires in the plug. I mean little jolts, like when a cat gives you a warning bite or a toddler nips you in the neck. You won't die, you most likely won't even bruise and other people expect you to laugh it off.
The thing with surprises and shocks though is that they are unexpected and, with aspergers, quite frequent. A lot of the time you can be surprised simply because you had already worked out in your head how something would turn out. We have a naturally tendency to plan ahead, so we can organise ourselves and know what to do without having to stop everything and figure things out. When something goes wrong - or feels like it's gone wrong - it's an unwelcome surprise and it jars the whole operation, leaving you feeling slightly out of control.
And there is the key word here: not surprises, not shocks but Control. Aspies love to have control, it's a beautiful thing. I don't mean we all want to rule the world or even expect to be in charge (no thanks!), I mean that having control over what goes on around you makes it feel safe and helps you get through the day in one piece.
If you're feeling delicate but still need to go out into the world of lions and tigers and bears, you can plan ahead, plan it step by step, down to whatever detail you like. It's actually safer to plan it only to medium-density, as then you can leave room for little things to change and not feel worried when they do. However, accepting that little things can change is not the same as accepting surprises.
For instance, you need to get the car fixed at the garage. It's not a very good day but it has to be done. You take it in, knowing you can wait as it won't take long. You know how you'll be greeted, they'll take the keys, you'll sit down in the waiting room. There may be other people, the man might offer you a coffee, which you'll decline as you have no idea how to work the coffee machine. The TV may be on. There may not be a place to sit. You decide, before going in, whether or not you'll stay in the waiting room if there is nowhere to sit. You decide to keep your coat on as it can be cold in there and being nervous makes you shiver, so you don't want to shiver through cold as well.
There, all prepared and off we go.
You get to the garage and realise you left your glasses at home. You left wearing the prescription sunglasses. If you take them off, you can see but not well enough to focus properly or read anything. Plus, you have a tendency to scowl at things. If you keep them on, you look weird, sitting in the waiting room, wearing shades.
This unwelcome little surprise is shelved away. You cope with it, try to ignore it, sashay into the garage waiting room and give them the keys. Politely decline the coffee and turn round to sit down.
There is a space and it's opposite the TV. Now you can pretend to watch it while you sit there, regretting your glasses being at home. You accidentally sit on someone's coat. It's okay, it'll be fine. You smile at them, conscious you have a slightly zoned out expression without your glasses (yes, for those who know me, I have this expression with them too).
All is fine and then you need to sign for the car. You have another little shock, realising you can't see where you're meant to sign without putting the prescription sunglasses on. Do you guess and hope you don't sign the counter or put the sunglasses back on and look weird?
In this real-life scenario, I put them back on, waggling them at the chap behind the counter and explaining I had left my glasses at home. Of course he didn't care, I was worrying for nothing. It's always surprising to me how non-judgmental people can be when you're feeling vulnerable and then how callously cruel some will be when you least expect it.
Catastrophe averted, you take the keys and leave. It was all worry over nothing but that didn't stop you fretting for most of the time you were there.
This is the sort of surprise brought on by myself, by forgetting my glasses, but it shows how one quite small thing can impact on everything else. It also emphasises how tenuous that feeling of control can be. It doesn't take much for the control to feel like it's slipping, even when barely anything has changed. That sense of loss of control can change your whole perspective and make a so-so day a really difficult one.
Coming back to the surprises angle, the way most non-aspies encounter this hatred of surprise and change is when they want to do something with their beloved and find a brick wall in the way. This can range from wanting to go to the park on the 'wrong' day, to doing something special and exciting for a birthday, to wanting to make Christmas a day to remember (I'm going to cover aspies and Christmas as a separate post quite soon).
You notice how none of these things are done to hurt the aspie. The worst part is they are often done to make the aspie happy! So when it falls apart because the beloved reacts badly and hares off back to the safety of the computer, the non-aspie can feel very, very hurt and let down. It doesn't matter in that moment that they understand a lot of the aspergers behaviour: what matters is they, personally, planned something lovely and had it shoved back in their face.
I'm sorry, I can't make it better. Too often I've been the one who has had to bear surprises. Adult aspies will often try harder than children and young people to hide their horror of the unexpected. I will try to look forward to the unseen present in the wrapping paper. I'll try to summon enthusiasm for the day out when it's my usual day for something else. I will really, really try to look pleased when you spring a brilliant surprise on me, out of nowhere, when I thought you had just come for a coffee and a chat.
All too often, my true feelings and the true feelings of many an aspie, show in the face to such an extent I might as well just give in and shriek as I run off into my bedroom.
You see, even nice surprises are stressful, mainly because of two very important reasons:
1. It's a change from the routine and we have the routine sussed out
2. You expect an emotional reaction from us and are giving one yourself
I've covered how changing number 1 can impact on us, as the feeling of control slips away. Number 2 is even trickier.
I might love the present, you may have chosen the perfect gift, the most perfect, extraordinary, amazing gift. Then you wrapped it and gave it as a surprise. You watched me intently as I opened it. The pressure builds - a surprise, an audience, expectations, feelings, your eyes boring into my face, the need to show my emotions strongly, so you can see how I feel.
All of this overwhelms the gift itself and the moment of giving. I don't necessarily want to spoil it by being told what the gift is (though that may work for some aspies). It helps if I get a warning, though, something like, 'you'll like your gift, it's right up your street,' or 'don't worry, you will like it'. Nothing specific, you see, just reassurance.
You can watch me open it, but try not to sit forward on your seat, face alight, hands clasped together. Maybe chat a little to other people, or even to me. Maybe hold something in your hands so that I'm not your only focus. Have the TV on in the background, so I can see it out of the corner of my eye and not just have the drama of you, me and the present.
Make the opening and giving of the present something with an element of control to it. Ask me if I would like to open it now, let me know by your body language that you are relaxed and it's no big deal. Let me get myself comfortable; if necessary, let me leave the present and then open it later.
I've concentrated more on presents and the coping mechanisms in play there, but it can be applied to any surprise you need to share with your aspie. The main idea is in the aspie retaining control, or the feeling of control. If you have something shocking to tell them, don't lead up to it too gently. Let them know you have to tell them something they won't like, that is a shock. You can't always soften the blow but it really helps if you know a little of what type of thing is coming.
For the rest of it, for the hurt feelings as you and your idea/present/day out are rejected, just let it flow a little. You have probably been told, or gathered by now, that your aspie does not like surprises. Once you've got over your hurt feelings, reflect on the fact that it shouldn't really have been a surprise to you that your beloved was not pleased. Admit to yourself that you wanted to please your aspie, but were also pleasing yourself, by making it a surprise.
I realise that may read a little harshly, like a criticism. It is and it isn't. I know you do these things because you love us and want to please us. I also know your aspie will have made clear, by body language if not by word and deed, that they do not appreciate being surprised. Please, please respect this as much as possible and make allowances for it.
And if you really must give your aspie a delicious surprise, warn them beforehand. Yes, that sounds like a contradiction but it really isn't. Tell them you have a surprise for them. Their heart will sink, honestly it will. Follow it quickly by saying it's something you're sure they will like, then after that you can give them the surprise.
Like going to the garage, the shop, the school or out into the world in general, when it comes to feeling in control, preparation is everything. Then surprises can be absorbed and coped with and (don't tell anyone!), a little bit enjoyed.
Oh, and before I forget - don't worry about the super-duper special present we seemed so lacklustre about. We actually love it, it really is the best thing ever. We'll go online and tell everybody what a great person you are for knowing us so well. We won't shut up about it. And in bed that night, we'll think about it and smile, because we know you love us so much. And eventually, we'll tell you how much we liked it. You just have to be patient. Annoying, I know, but everything moves at its own speed and aspies are no different.