The world can be an unpredictable, confusing place for autistic people, and that makes a set routine crucial for getting by. So when something unexpected still happens, it can feel like the whole world is spinning out of control.

George explains what it feels like to experience unexpected changes, which is a common difficulty for autistic people.

George 

My name’s George and I am 21 years old! I have a diagnosis of Asperger syndrome, which I received when I was 5 years old. This was first noticed by a teacher when I was at nursery, who told my parents she thought some of my behaviours weren’t quite typical!

I’m in my third year at Durham University, studying English Literature and Spanish, and I am currently on a placement year abroad in Bilbao, teaching English in a secondary school. In my free time, I love music and I’m always trying to find new bands to listen to!

I also run a group which campaigns for financial accessibility for students, lobbying for better bursaries and support for students in financial difficulty. In the future, I would love to be involved in campaigns and activism, particularly regarding autism and in the sphere of mental health. 

I think that autism needs to be so much better understood as a spectrum disorder and that people are affected by it in different ways.

Once more people know this, I’d hope people would help those with autism to overcome any obstacles they may have so they can feel valued, because currently too few people with autism are. 

Processing time

I occasionally need extra time in processing information given to me orally, particularly if it isn’t something I am expecting to hear. In my most recent Spanish oral exam at university, I was asked to prepare presentations of two videos, though I would only be told which presentation I would have to give seconds before I was expected to present.

Though I had properly prepared for my exam, when I was told which presentation topic I was to give, my brain couldn’t quite process what it was meant to do. I couldn’t order my thoughts in a way that helped me to speak, and then I began to panic as I wasn’t speaking and thought I’d fail my exam.

The only way I can vaguely describe it was an intense feeling quite similar to stage fright, as I just couldn’t remember anything and I wanted to be swallowed up!

After a few seconds of silence (though it felt like forever), I managed to begin giving my presentation, though I felt really on edge for the rest of the exam, which I think affected my performance. For me, I always find that if I need to ask people to repeat things a couple of times, this normally helps me to process all of the information – but some people misunderstand this as me not listening, which is not true and very annoying!

(As a disclosure, Durham aren’t aware that I have Asperger syndrome – it was only after this had happened that I realised that this was the reason why I froze during my exam.)

George

Unexpected change 

Sometimes I have real trouble when plans change at the last minute, particularly when I’m travelling. I remember on my first day as a volunteer with The National Autistic Society, the Northern Line tube I was on was stuck in a tunnel for over 20 minutes.

It really stressed me out, as I was really anxious I’d be late for my first day in the office and that everyone would have a bad impression of me.

Also, I felt quite on edge and panicky as the route was unfamiliar, so couldn’t instantly figure out an alternative route – and there was no phone signal or internet to check! Luckily the tube eventually started moving and I managed to arrive at work on time, though it was still very stressful! 

Whenever something unexpected like this happens, I always try to make sure I have an alternative route planned that I can take to help me feel calmer and more relaxed. If I do encounter unexpected changes like this, I try to ring someone I know who is familiar with the area (family/friends), to check that the alternative plans I have are appropriate. They know sometimes I get panicky, so they always try to calm me down if I seem stressed!

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