The Unexpected! No phrase gives me cold shivers inside like that one. As a neurodivergent person, the fear of the unexpected is incredibly common, almost universal, in its negative impact on our emotions.

As is probably apparent from other posts, I’ve only recently discovered I’m an auDHDer. So that means I’ve spent more than half a century not understanding why surprises (even good ones), changes to my daily routine, plans that don’t go as planned, give me such anxiety. I understood that this was a thing for me but I didn’t know why. I just assumed I was odd.

One of the most frustrating aspects of knowing that I need to plan, is that more often than not, my mental plans don’t play out in real life. I work through every possible scenario, in advance of an event. I research venues, look at photos of locations online. I see myself going through the process (I think that’s a tip that I took from that old classic book, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, back in the early 1990s). I see myself nailing it – being in control, being calm, smiling. That definitely helps to an extent. But if ONE SINGLE THING occurs that I haven’t planned – say, a train gets cancelled – I am immediately incapable of action. I am immobilised. Suffice it to say that I don’t use public transport due to the lack of control. And I don’t drive further than my regular haunts, locally. I’ve reached a stage where the roll of the dice just isn’t worth it for me – I’d rather just keep it tight and minimise the risk of The Dreaded Unexpected.

I’m not saying this is the best way to be. I’m just saying it’s my way, after decades of throwing myself out there and spending every day as a gibbering, unhappy mess.

I think there’s more to it than this though. I don’t think it’s the unexpected that’s the core of the problem. It’s the unexpected that we don’t know how to handle. Many of us live in fear of experiencing emotional dysregulation, overwhelm, meltdowns, shutdowns, burnout – it’s no wonder that we avoid anything that will lead to any of those. But I think the core of the problem is that we don’t know how to handle it. And that’s because we are largely faced with situations which don’t feel comfortable and natural to us.

When our child falls over and cuts their knee, that’s unexpected. But we know the process that’s needed to deal with it. We comfort them, we patch them up and we encourage them not to be afraid for the next time.

If we, as neurodivergent people, fall over and cut a knee, the pain can be extreme, if we’re hypersensitive to pain. We may start screaming. We may panic. Strangers might lean over us in an effort to help and we feel smothered. Suddenly, all of the other sensorial experiences can close in on us (we’re in a busy shopping mall, let’s say) and we’ve gone from being focussed and in control: three shops to go to, specifics to buy, then out) to The Unexpected. Those around us don’t understand why we’re becoming increasingly agitated. Why our hands are over our ears, why we can no longer communicate. This small incident has elevated, pretty quickly, into something that feels huge.

Bad news is another example. How on earth do we deal with such an overwhelming tide of emotion? It’s too intense. There seems to be no way to keep it under control. It’s terrifying, it physically hurts. No one around us seems to be reacting in such a dramatic way, which just makes it feel worse.

Now something much more mundane: we’re off on our weekly trip to the supermarket. It’s got a big car park and we tend to park in a far flung spot, because it’s always available and we’ve rehearsed our route into the store. Today, that space is taken. Shock! And all the nearby spaces are taken. In fact, when we look around we see that there doesn’t seem to be any space nearby at all. The Unexpected has arrived. This can be so stressful to contend with that many of us will just drive home. I have been known (on many an occasion) to park ridiculously far from my destination and then try and find my way back on foot, just because I panic, and when I see a space I grab it, wherever that may be. This is why so many of us qualify for and need Blue Badges.

I’ve written a separate post on the difficulties of travelling ← click here.

There are obviously endless examples of how The Unexpected shows itself in our daily lives. And the more that unexpected things happen to us, the more that reaffirms to us that being in fight, flight or freeze mode is warranted for so much of the time.

Routine, rigidity and control – these are coveted aspects of the autistic experience for many good reasons!