mom holding toddler throwing tantrum

Special Needs and Unwanted Surprises: Dealing with Last-Minute Disruptions in an Uncertain World

Read Time 5 Minutes

If there’s anything worse than having your plans spoiled, it’s having plans spoiled when they include someone who has autism or Down syndrome, who never heard the unspoken “circumstances permitting” behind “we’ll go to the beach Friday.” A “but you promised!!!” meltdown is bad enough with a neurotypical toddler; with someone close to your own size, it’s a nightmare.

Or you may have autism yourself and, at age thirty or forty, still feel meltdown bubbling up at every unwanted surprise. Long after learning intellectually that “life happens,” the autistic brain craves a sense of order amidst sensory chaos; and any disturbance of that order can trigger emotional or physical symptoms. The worst-case scenario is having multiple children wailing, “Why can’t we go?!?” when you’re already on the edge of erupting yourself.

In a very real sense, people with autism are allergic to disappointment. There are, however, ways to reduce the symptoms—often without medication or financial investment. The “life hacks” below, while not intended to substitute for professional counseling, can significantly lower meltdown risk.

Resilience Hacks

With or without mental disabilities, people who practice resilience-building habits cope better under stress.

  • For caregivers as well as for those who depend on them: beware the “have to do” thinking that generates long and impossible to-do lists. You may need a therapist’s help finding and sticking to the real essentials—which should definitely include periodic “me time” to keep you recharged and functional.
  • Always ask for help when you need it—even if you feel like the only person who ever has trouble in that area. (Spoiler alert: you aren’t.)   
  • Take care of your physical health to strengthen your emotional health. Eat a nutritious diet, and get in some physical activity every day (even just walking from the far end of your office parking lot).
  • Get adequate sleep as well: chronic fatigue is particularly deadly to resilience. If you or another family member have ongoing insomnia, double-check that your bedroom is adequately dark, quiet, and cool. Make sleeping areas into sleep-only areas, moving screens and daytime activities elsewhere. If sleep problems continue, consult a doctor.

Worry-Busting Hacks

One thing that keeps thousands of people awake every night is worry—including worry about a child’s disability or about something going “wrong.” Anxiety and the pain of disappointment thrive on helplessness, so your best defense is a proactive approach.

  • Where you can do something about your concern, do it rather than letting “busyness” or fear of failure stop you. Many people find the 5 Second Rule helpful—not the one concerning whether dropped food is safe to eat, but the one explained in the Mel Robbins book by that title: count down “5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … 1 … GO!” and then act immediately, before “what ifs” have further chance to distract you.
  • When you or your child have autism, accepting what you can’t do anything about is particularly difficult. Try shifting your focus by working on some other productive activity.
  • If you’re anxious about a particular “what if?,” play “and then what?”: “If this does happen, then what will we do? If that doesn’t resolve the situation, then what will we do? If that doesn’t resolve the situation, then what?” When the whole family gets involved, and imaginations are allowed free rein, worries turn into giggles before you know it. 
  • If chronic worry remains a problem, contact a doctor and request evaluation for possible anxiety disorder.

Readiness Hacks

Trying to make life 100% disappointment-proof is an exercise in futility, and also an extra invitation to meltdown when things still don’t go as planned (“the world never appreciates how hard I try!!”). Try the following approaches instead.

  • Do take reasonable precautions: secure your house against theft; hold home fire drills; buy insurance; have your car serviced regularly.
  • Rather than letting your whole day stand or fall on good picnic weather, make a Plan B in advance, to ensure something fun to do even if it rains.
  • Don’t overschedule! If you stuff your itinerary to bursting, everyone will get exhausted and cranky whether the schedule works or not. Two or three “big items” (e.g., ice cream parlor and one floor of the museum) are plenty for any party that includes children or stimulation-sensitive people.
  • Keep toys and nutritious snacks in your purse and car, for quick diversion in case of stress.

Recovery Hacks

However prepared you are, it does happen that the most eagerly anticipated plans are shattered, reducing the most rational and neurotypical people to tears of disappointment. But it doesn’t have to ruin the next week, month, or year.

  • Don’t try to talk anyone out of a meltdown. Not even when you have a more mature perspective that recognizes the “tragedy” as insignificant. It is significant to the hurting person, and if you can’t “fix it,” you at least can help by letting them cry it out on your shoulder. Contradicting their hurt will just add “no one understands” feelings to the pain.
  • Once the initial burst of disappointment subsides, shift attention from the unfairness of the past moment, and onto your next step forward. It’s more fun to play “what kind of ‘lemonade’ can we make from this ‘lemon’ of a situation?” than to indulge self-pity.
  • Finally, never scold a child (or feel guilty yourself) for taking disappointment harder than “everybody else.” Work on solutions, work on practical actions, work on behavior—but never try to force a change in your or anyone else’s essential nature. Everyone is unique, with unique weaknesses and strengths to be used in unique ways, and that’s something to be grateful for.

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