(CONTENT NOTE: This post discusses autistic meltdowns)
“Uncertainty doesn’t mean that something bad is going to happen.”
This is one of the main points I took away, word for word, from my uni counselling service sessions last year. I find it very helpful to remember because, well, it’s true. Sudden changes with no advance warning can be pretty awful in terms of sensory overload, but on the other hand, sudden changes with advance warning can lead to days of slow-burn, pit-of-the-stomach anxiety which, most of the time, turns out to be completely unfounded. I find it helpful to remind myself and to be reminded that, realistically, there’s a big chance that nothing bad is going to happen to me at all.
Having said that, there is a huge difference between reassurance and denial. A dismissive “stop worrying, it’ll be fine” or a laughing “you’re worried about THAT?” from neurotypical people, however well-meaning, is incredibly frustrating. The main reason for this is that these people don’t understand what I mean by “things going wrong”. They don’t understand the consequences of things going on. I’m not just worried about inconvenience, discomfort, general less-than-perfection. First and foremost, I’m worried about meltdown.
Autistic meltdowns are experienced differently by different people and in different situations. For me, meltdowns mostly involve a lot of crying, the intense feeling that nothing is going to be okay ever again, and a horrible all-consuming headache that makes me feel sick, makes it difficult to speak coherently (in a situation that may attract the attention of well-meaning people pressuring me to speak coherently so they can understand what’s going on) and means I can’t process more sensory input (in a situation that’s usually provoked in the first place by some ongoing source of sensory overload I can’t get away from). It can take days to fully recover from. These days, I experience true meltdowns rarely, so I know the risk is low, but the very fact that it could happen is terrifying. In addition, if I get into this state away from home, there’s really no guarantee that I’ll be able to make it home or to a place of safety myself, so the prospect of that happening when I’m on my own is very scary indeed.
“Why on earth are you so on edge about it? It’ll be fine!” always makes me think “Well it’s alright for you, you don’t have to deal with the consequences if, by chance, it’s NOT fine”. But articulating that in the moment is difficult, especially after years of it being mocked and dismissed as over-reacting even by people who really mean well.
Of course, in reality, it’s almost always fine. Uncertainty doesn’t mean something bad is going to happen. Uncertainty only means risk. But that risk is very real, that the severe effects should that risk actually occur are very real too. By all means, offer reassurance that it will probably be fine, but understand that it might not be fine, and that risk is not to be erased.