By Cristina Stanger, Self-Advocacy Liaison WRFN
*This article was originally published in the Family Pulse Newsletter August 2019*
Change has always thrown me for a loop. Before I was diagnosed with an exceptionality, a counsellor once told me, “Life transitions are hard for everyone, they just seem to be that much harder for you.” Now that I have a better understanding of my atypical neurology and how it impacts my ability to cope with change, this observation makes more sense. But change keeps happening, whether I like it or not. Whatever the nature of you or your loved one’s exceptionality, navigating change tends to be more involved compared to the average person.
Change brings unknowns and uncertainty, which is the scariest part for me, personally. As a youth, I used to long to be an adult because I thought that meant life became stable - you would go to work, do your job, come home, and have your happy routine. Gone would be the days of sorting out a new teacher (or teachers), new classmates, new classroom dynamics, and new expectations each-and-every September. Adulthood seemed so predictable, I thought I would get more control and life would have fewer ups-and-downs. Well, life experience has shown me that this is not the case, quite the opposite in fact. Adult life brings a whole new set of changes, and they tend to be far less predictable and come with far less warning: your car breaks down, your company is restructured, you lose a beloved pet. As Heraclitus put it, “Change is the only constant in life.” So the question becomes, how are we going to handle it?
There are a few tips and tricks I have developed to help myself navigate periods of transition that I will share with you. Many of these may seem obvious, but it can be helpful to see them written out as a concrete reminder. I also acknowledge that I am just one person, these are things that work for me and they may not be a good fit for everyone.
- Plan ahead when possible - If I know a change is coming, I am better off accepting it, rather than avoiding it. This gives me the opportunity to think ahead and plan for an optimal adjustment period. Experience has taught me that proactively putting supports in place is generally going to have a better outcome than reactively putting supports in place. This, of course, isn’t always possible as it is hard to anticipate every need or situation, but when one has a sense of what supports have worked in the past, implementing similar strategies is a good starting point.
- Set realistic expectations - I tend to compare myself to others who are already accustomed to a certain situation, and expect myself to perform at that level right away, but this is expecting too much. I always need to remind myself: there will be a learning curve, there are some things I can do well, and it is healthier to set goals for improvement rather than to expect perfection.
- Scale back - I try to remove the extras from my to-do list, and re-evaluate my commitments when faced with a period of change. I ask myself, ‘What is really important right now?’ and I try to focus on those things, eliminating the rest. This allow extra time and extra energy to be directed toward finding my way in the new experience or situation. Of all my suggestions, I find this has the biggest impact on my own ability to cope with something new.
- Focus on what you know - My brain intuitively jumps to every ‘what if’ I can think of, and I imagine every way things could go wrong. In order to calm myself down, I try to redirect myself to tangible facts (and sometimes I need a support person to help me). I also remind myself that the probability of my worst-case-scenarios is usually very small. I come up with a plan of action to use should I encounter a problem, taking comfort in this rather than feeding my anxiety by inventing future problems. This takes practice.
- Ask questions - This goes in tandem with suggestion 4. If there is key information I am missing, I am better off getting a factual answer rather than allowing my imagination to fill in the gaps. Sometimes talking to people who have ‘been there’ can be really helpful, although I acknowledge that networking to find these people, or finding the courage to socially engage with them, can be a challenge in-and-of-itself. When I’ve found it hard to reach out, I’ve had success asking friends and colleagues to direct me to an appropriate person, essentially borrowing the networks of others and allowing them to facilitate initial introductions (see suggestion 8).
- Visit new places in advance - I find the benefits of this are three-fold. Firstly, it takes away some of the unknowns so my mind isn’t busy imaging every possible detail of the new environment. Secondly, it provides a level of familiarity when I return, so the entire experience is not foreign. And thirdly, it allows me to anticipate some of the accommodations I may need.
- After the initial exposure, visualize - This works for me because I am a very visual person. I imagine myself going to the new place, or carrying out the new task I need to perform. This tends to work better after I have seen the place, or been shown the steps for the new task, so I am not worrying about the what-ifs of the situation. This mental practise helps build my confidence.
- Have a support network in place (and use it) - I used to hesitate to reach out for help, or it never even occurred to me to ask, incorrectly believing that everyone got where they were on their own. However, I was once challenged with the question: Do you like helping other people? To which, I responded “yes”. And it was proposed to me, that perhaps other people enjoy helping one-another too. This helped me to feel more comfortable reaching out.
- Ultimately, be gentle with yourself/child - Mistakes will be made, emotions will run high, fatigue and stress will exacerbate other issues. Change can be hard, but one cannot have personal growth without it. Remember that things may be difficult right now, at this moment in time, but they can improve and one will find a new normal eventually.
If you or your family members would like to discuss this, or any other topic, please reach out to Cristina through the Ask A Self-Advocate program (AASA). As with all WRFN programming, the AASA program is provided at no charge.