Based on a recent experience I was involved in involving a couple of autistic individuals I am lucky enough to know.
Waiting. What’s the problem with that, I hear you ask? Well, if you’re autistic then it can be a huge problem. Waiting can – literally – take over your life. Waiting for an answer, a decision, an opinion – whatever it might be, the wait can be an anxiety inducing process of indeterminable time – and this latter can so easily oft be avoided. A simple holding email, for example, might allow a person to engage with life without having their lives put on hold for uncertain periods of time.
What it is about waiting that is such a problem?
Well, first off it’s the importance of the response. A simple question to the predominant neurotype (PNT) might not elicit any particular urgency, but if the answer is of dire importance to the autistic individual then life might stop between sending the email and waiting for the reply. A question that is seemingly innocuous to the PNT might be of desperate concern (for whatever reason) for the autistic individual.
Secondly, the ‘up in the air’ nature of when a response might be coming can play absolute havoc for the person waiting. In this day and age there are plenty of electronic forms of communication, some of which will divulge information such as when a message has been received…and when it has been read. For some people, checking these things (sometimes every few seconds) is the only activity that can take place between pressing send and getting the reply. This is an activity that could be fraught with danger. Akin to waiting for those test results (exams, results from the hospital, finding out something of huge importance) – you wait for the envelope, you wait…and wait…it arrives. Your heart is pounding. Your hands are shaking. You are terrified, excited, apprehensive, nervous, hopeful. You open the envelope. It’s empty. You crash. You’ve run through the gamut of emotions – for no reason. Back to waiting. Imagine this scenario – but instead of waiting for an envelope, the individual is clicking on the internet – every few seconds – to see if there is a reply. That same process, that same range of emotions – over, and over again.
Thirdly – the inability to stop the rumination – the ongoing thoughts that might intrude to the point of not being able to think of anything else. What might the reply be? What will he or she think about me? Will they understand what I meant? Will they misinterpret my words and will I then be in a tailspin of terror trying to work out how to rectify the situation? Sometimes those ruminations can become almost real, so the individual actually processes those negative emotions and anxiety rockets.
As is sometimes the case though, when it comes to the issues that autistic people face, listening to them is a pretty safe place to start. Simple rules might not eliminate anxiety – but may well alleviate it. For example, if my autistic student is due to submit draft work, we might decide to identify a date and time for her to send it to me, so that I can clear my diary well ahead of time so the time she has to wait for a response is minimised. As noted, a holding email may be of huge benefit to some – ‘I’ve read your message, all is fine, I will reply in greater detail tomorrow’ could mean the difference between an emotionally balanced autistic individual on the one hand and a sleep deprived emotional wreck on the other. Or – if you know you are going through a busy time, or will be away from the computer for the day, a similar automatic response might make a significant difference.
Lastly, remember that time goes by at different speeds for different people. You might think that leaving replying to an autistic person within a day or two is perfectly acceptable, as this might be fine for you. What, though, if each second of waiting feels like an hour to that person? I am as guilty as anyone, so to anyone reading this who’s thinking – ‘yeah, but you didn’t reply to me…’ – I am sincerely sorry. I will try harder.
I’m not sure that I have heard (or read) enough about waiting, but I do know the very real impact it can have on some people. So, if you have any choice, please – don’t play the waiting game.