The Waiting Game

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.

22 thoughts on “The Waiting Game”

  1. I can so relate to this. I was stuck waiting for a tow truck to get my car at my house on a day off work. Although I had the whole day free, the 3-hour delay completely wrecked the entire day. Even after the tow truck came and took my car away, I was still thrown off. Day lost to what most people consider a simple thing.

    If only.

  2. I don’t think I’d even fully made the connection between those feelings and the autism.

    Thank you for connecting a few more dots for me.


  3. As an autistic adult, I can relate to this article.

    The ‘waiting’ in every aspect of my life, eats away at my brain.

    Excellent article Dr Luke.

  4. This makes so much sense and explains why my daughter reacts the way she does sometimes x Thank you

  5. Oh my, yes! Thank you so much for writing about this! Waiting is my nemesis, and life really does seem to stop when waiting on an answer to–or the results of–something important. It’s killer. Can’t stand it; can’t think of anything else until it’s resolved. This especially happens in relationships (of any type), and particularly when there’s been a misunderstanding, awkwardness, or conflict of any kind. Thank you for bringing this to light! Excellent post! :))

  6. Thank you so much for this blog… for the first time someone has articulated the process of waiting I experience. It can result in checking my emails every few moments, to not being able to think of anything else & ultimately not coping with other aspects of my life. I get very upset when people say – well thats done & you can stop thinking about it now as nothing you can do until you hear back! I want to say, no chance! My body will feel partially frozen & incapable until I know!

    1. Yes, totally agree – I think people are pretty well meaning in the main but just telling someone not to stress doesn’t actually help!!!

  7. Excellent description. Waiting can be annoying for all but is heightened for those identified as on the Autistic spectrum. I accept and understand this. However, from experience the exact opposite happens when waiting for a response from my Asperger husband. He sees no need to respond in a timely manner and often will not respond at all. Any prompts from me, are taken as criticism and result in an argument. I find this much harder to live with.

    1. That must be hard, i am guilty of this (I’m the Autistic wife), i know i do it and i often just can’t get the words out (i consider myself very verbal too). And sometimes i just answer the person in my head and then forget that i haven’t answered them verbally! Such are the vagaries of some Autistic brains.

  8. This is so true, thank you for writing about this. The waiting game can be fraught with angst and create so many other uncertainties, about oneself, about the future, how long to wait – the list goes on.

  9. Always, always had problems such as you describe- the shaking, anxiety- even get them thinking about it! Never ascribed being bad at waiting to autism though- more to my generalised anxiety. But hey, any connections are helpful. Thanks for this. Interesting.

  10. So, so true, every word of it. Thank you for articulating this so well. Of course, this does not happen all the time, just on selected occasions. I was thinking, if you appended a remark to your communication along the lines of “I need a quick answer to this for my peace of mind”…but then that might not be socially appropriate and will not alleviate your worries. “Tailspin of terror” is an excellent expression!

  11. Oh my yes!!! Waiting for others to make plans kills me. I ask my hubby every day, “Did your family make plans yet?” And then the plans are made the day of and I say, “No, I can’t. They waited too long.” Or something falls through and I’m told to reschedule. Excruciating.
    I send an anxiety-provoking communication and wait and wait and wait for the reply wondering if I was able to mediate or if it’s going to blow up. On and on. Waiting is truly awful. I just want to know what’s happening, peace.

  12. Hi Luke
    My name is Hazel and I want to remind you that you wrote an exelent forword to an article I wrote on mental health. A long time ago now.
    At the moment am on waiting lists for variouse medical conditions. And shortley I think am going to be on a waiting list for an ADHD diognosis and am feeling very angshouse because I know that the waiting list can be upto 3 years long. Any copeing stratagies for this would be really great because unforchanatley NHS waiting it seems cant be avoided especially if you cant afford to have a private treatment for things. Thank you for takeing the time to read this Hazel

  13. p.s.
    I dont expect to hear about solutions to my problems about NHS waiting lists. I just wanted to let you all know that i feel the same angziaty that you all feel.
    Thank you Hazel

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