Planning, Anticipation, and Uncertainty

One of my biggest strengths is the way I anticipate and plan; I automatically work out the logistics of getting things done, and I usually find ways to make the doing more efficient as well. This has helped me in both my work life and my personal life. But one of my biggest sources of anxiety is also the way I anticipate and plan, because it means I am always thinking ahead to how things might be, but I can never be absolutely sure that that’s the way they will be.

For example, I have a couple of busy days coming up next week, when I have a series of orientations for new graduate students to go to, and I have already started working out the best plan for how to get where I need to go. I’ve looked up the times and locations I need to know (but I’ll be looking in more detail at the campus map the day before, to make sure I know how to get there), and made inquiries about whether my parking permit will be active or not yet (it won’t; sigh). I’ve added in a couple of to-dos that I should be able to handle in between meetings and other events, and made sure I know where I need to go for those, as well.

And all of this will be immensely helpful—but it’s also a lot of mental energy that I’m expending ahead of time, which may or may not reduce the mental energy I’ll need to actually navigate those two days. After all, I still don’t know how busy the campus will be, or where exactly I’ll be able to park. I don’t know exactly what all of the venues look like, or with whom I’ll be interacting, so those are things I’m going to have to incorporate on the fly. Anticipating does feel like it’s helpful, and I’m always happy that I’ve gotten myself organized ahead of time. But it’s also kind of draining. It’s like my brain is always going, always mapping things out; as soon as any new element enters the picture, I’m adding it to the map, rearranging if I need to.

This is why it can be so very stressful when a) something gets added or changed at the last minute, b) something takes much longer than expected, or c) something does not go at all as I had planned. The way I manage long, busy days is usually by rehearsing them in my head ahead of time; then at least I feel like I’ve practiced and therefore know that I can get through it all. When reality does not go according to that mapped-out rehearsal in my head (which it has an annoying habit of doing on a frustratingly frequent basis), I can implode.

Not all the time, though, and I’m a lot better about adapting than I used to be. And the good thing is that my brain just keeps on mapping, so after the initial breakdown, I am able to bounce back pretty quickly with a re-route. I suppose I just need to work on building more flexibility into the map in the first place, so it doesn’t feel like a total collapse when something doesn’t work out.

Academically Organized

It’s the day after my 47th birthday, and it’s hard to believe we’re this far into August already. But late summer always seems to fly, to me. I’m actually happy about that, because while I’m thoroughly enjoying the fact that I have the month off, I am also very eager to start my first semester in grad school.

One thing I did to get ready for that was create a visual schedule of all of my classes, including the one I will be a teaching assistant for (and my office hours for that position, too). I used a schedule template in Numbers, the spreadsheet application on my Mac, as a starting point. I merged cells to create blocks of time for each class, then entered the details like the name of the class, the professor teaching it, the building and room number, and the exact starting and ending times. I color-coded the blocks, too, so the classes I’m taking are in green, and the one I’m a TA for is in yellow. My office hours are in orange.

This lets me see all of my standing obligations for the week at a glance, and also serves as a single reference point for where I need to be for each of them. I used to have recurring nightmares about not being able to find my classrooms when I was in college before, and I’ve already had a couple of them this summer. And that’s extra silly this time, because all of my classes are in the same pair of connected buildings, and the majority of them even meet in the same room! But such is my brain.

I also entered all of this info into the calendar on my phone, which will also have other meetings and appointments that aren’t recurring each week. But I find it harder to visualize my week when looking at my phone calendar, so creating this visual aid for keeping track of my schedule—which is different every day—was really helpful. Once the semester starts, I’ll also add recurring reminders for each class into Todoist, because that is the main way I keep track of things I need to do. I find putting appointments in there as well as my calendar makes it really easy to remember them, since I check Todoist multiple times per day.

So those are my main tools for staying organized in terms of knowing where I need to be, and when. I’ve also set up a Trello board for keeping track of assignments for each class. I had been using a white board in my home office for that, but that was when I was only taking two classes, and it’s not big enough now. 😂 I have one list on that Trello board that is reserved for my own research ideas, and I’ve been busy populating that over the last couple of months. Then I have lists for each class, one for my work as a TA, and one for administrative tasks (although usually I just use Todoist for those, since they’re usually simple one-off tasks). It’s another good visualization tool, since I’ll be able to see all of the things I need to get done, with due dates and such. That may not end up being something I particularly want to see, of course—but it’s better than forgetting something!

Peer Pressure and Authenticity

I had some trouble sleeping the other night, and as I was lying awake at 4 AM, I encountered a random memory from my childhood. I was at a public swimming pool with a friend, and we were watching people jump off the high diving board. The really high one, with the long ladder that took forever to climb up, and even longer to climb back down.

My friend and I had been diving off the lower diving board, or at least jumping off it; I wasn’t great at diving, and sometimes ended up with water up my nose when I dove head-first. That was very unpleasant, but I hated those pinching nose clips, which tended to come off when I hit the water anyway. In between jumps, my friend dared me to jump off the high dive, and said she would do it if I did. I told her I wasn’t interested, and swam away.

The thing is, I had already tried that once, which is how I knew that it took longer to climb back down the long ladder than it did to climb up it. I got up there once, and simply couldn’t do it. I couldn’t jump. I felt a little embarrassed at having to climb back down the ladder in front of the other kids, but also intensely relieved that I didn’t have to do it. So that day in the pool, I knew this about myself. I didn’t like heights, so just climbing up there would have been unpleasant. And I knew from a couple of roller-coaster experiences that I didn’t like that feeling of falling, the way my stomach seemed to lurch up into my throat. Throwing myself off of a high diving board was not something I cared to do, especially not to satisfy a dare from someone else.

It’s not that I didn’t care what my friend thought of me; I just didn’t care enough for it to outweigh my own preferences. And because my friend was not an asshole, she didn’t make a big deal of it, and we continued to have a good time at the pool. I think she did go off the high dive, and I watched and cheered for her. If she had been an asshole about it, we wouldn’t have remained friends for long. That’s something I knew from experience as well, having had “friends” who turned on me over petty (or nonexistent) things in the past.

I think about things like this when I read about studies related to autistic people and what is called “reputation management,” or the presentation of self in a way that is designed to enhance others’ opinion of you. Self-presentation in general is an important part of social interaction, and it’s an aspect of sociology I’m particularly interested in studying with autistic people in mind, both in terms of reputation management and also in relation to autistic “masking” and “camouflaging.” In one particular interview study, Cage, Bird, and Pellicano found that autistic adolescents did have a desire to fit in with others, but many also valued authenticity and being true to themselves; they wanted to be accepted as someone who was different, rather than simply conforming.

This rings true with my experience, as in the diving board example above. I wanted my friend to have a good opinion of me, but that concern for my reputation was not as strong as my desire to not do something I didn’t want to do. In other cases, I did my share of camouflaging in order to fit in, but there was always a line where reputation concerns lost out to personal preference and/or authenticity. They still do.

This is a balance that everyone has to strike, I think; if we only care what other people think of us, we risk becoming a doormat instead of being ourselves. But I do wonder whether autistic people reach that tipping point—where a desire for authenticity outweighs reputational concerns—sooner than non-autistic people. Or maybe some of us are already masking our autistic traits so much that we just reach a point of exhaustion and can’t add on any more self-presentation strategies. Or possibly both things are true.