Novel Situations: A Huge Stressor for Adults with Autism
A novel situation is a scenario that’s unique and unexpected. If there’s an event that you either don’t recognize or haven’t anticipated, then boom—you’re right in the middle of a novel situation. They’re a lot more common than you might realize, and everybody goes through them. But for us (that is, those with autism), it’s different. We tend to react poorly when those scenarios unfold—as I’ve mentioned before, we thrive on predictability, what’s familiar and the like. When something happens that’s in any way not like that, anxiety abounds. We see it as a horribly taxing affair that we wish would end immediately. Yes, people who aren’t on the spectrum can react that way, too, but here’s the difference: People with autism perceive many, many situations like that.
Still confused? Here’s what I mean: Let’s say one day you’re driving to your job and your “Check Engine” light pops up right in the middle of the Interstate. Not only that, but you start to see smoke rising out of the hood, and there’s nowhere to pull over because it’s rush hour! In a split second, you’re assaulted with frustration and confusion (possibly even fear) but you get your bearings and find a place. There’s a prime example of a novel situation! Now let’s say some other day you’re walking down the street and you bump into an old friend—you didn’t expect or anticipate that, but it’s one that’s nonetheless pleasant, as some novel situations are. But what if I told you that for people with autism, those two scenarios are often one and the same? It’s true! Even in settings that that are supposed to be enjoyable, people with autism usually react negatively because they haven’t experienced them before.
Even in settings that that are supposed to be enjoyable, people with autism usually react negatively because they haven’t experienced them before. Why? We’re literal-minded! Literal does not just pertain to words, as though it’s all about missing figures of speech—it actually pertains to our entire perspective. Literal means exact. Literal means real, which is what you can see, hear, smell, touch, and taste. So, which of those senses are used when you’re being social? Answer: None. Oh, sure, you use your sight to look at others and your hearing to listen to what’s being said, so wouldn’t that count? Well, yes and (mostly) no. Being social is abstract, so it takes the process of thinking for it to not only be understood but also for it to even exist! That means the parts of your brain that comprehend every single social rule are not the parts used for your senses! So, even though it might start with a fraction of sensory input, the rest of what your brain perceives doesn’t involve that at all. In other words, it doesn’t make sense through your senses, but that’s primarily (if not completely) what people with autism rely on. Therefore, many circumstances that’d be seen as ordinary to neurotypical people are nowhere near that for people on the spectrum.
So what can be done about it? Seeing as people go through many more novel situations as adults, those who also have autism likely won’t know how to react, especially considering that the way we communicate involves reacting immediately. That’s why it’s important to learn strategies to lessen the anxiety that we feel when it comes to novel situations. Given that it’s difficult for us to generalize, it’s best to take action when the day begins so that we’re in a proper state of mind. I’m talking about looking in the mirror and saying over and over again “I am calm…nothing will upset me today.” That alone gets one’s mind into a tranquil state, and saying that throughout the day keeps it there! Taking slow, deep breaths is key, too, and doing this when feeling stressed and nervous works miracles. Finally, listening to relaxing music definitely makes it easier; Smooth Jazz, Classical, even White Noise—almost anything works (emphasis on “almost”—Heavy Metal’s problematic). Once that ideal state of mind comes along, those novel situations don’t feel so novel anymore.
And there ya have it! Novel situations can come in many forms, but all of them can upset those of us with autism in one way or another. Like I said, it’s a lot more difficult trying to do something about those situations as they’re happening, but the right steps can be taken before they pop up—that way adults with autism won’t be as upset, if at all. I know they can seem like a never-ending nightmare, so follow my steps and you just might feel like you’ve finally woken up.