Sunday, January 24, 2016

Turning to Face the Change

I spent this New Years visiting one of my closest friends in San Francisco. It was a great five days (despite having a nasty stomach bug the day I arrived) and it felt good to see her, as the distance between us (her in San Fran and me in Los Angeles) makes that kind of engagement rare. And it was exactly what I wanted it to be - low key, relaxed, and just shooting the shit with a really good friend in one of my favorite cities on earth.

We talked a lot about our respective years during that week and it got me thinking a lot about transition. The two of us have spent the last few years in graduate school pursuing degrees designed to groom us for specific professions so a lot of our lives have revolved around school and all the elements that come with it. But with me graduating last year and her about to graduate this year, we have come to terms with that leaving school means no longer depending on certain beats to center our lives. After graduation, you have to make it on your own.

One of the most consistent things said about autistic people is that they're adverse to change. Any disruption to things or patterns we understand throws us into a tailspin of frustration and chaos, convention says. I can't claim to speak for every autistic person on the planet, but I'm kinda in the not-cool-with-change camp. Why should I be? I make an effort to keep things consistent in a way that works for me. I like having certain things I can count on. Any change to that throws me for a loop to a point where I have major trouble processing it.

But change is an inevitable part of life. To avoid change is futile. And I can attest to that as 2015 was the year of huge change that was hard to adjust to.

Last year marked a significant change for me in which I went from student to working adult. I spent a lot of my life in student mode where there is a lot of security. In school, there is a set schedule and expectations to meet - you have classes at certain times, assignments to complete by certain dates, and in the case of grad school meet and complete internship hours. It's set, predictable, and easy for me to follow as someone who always took to academia. School always made me feel comfortable in how set it was.

And then it ended. By May 2015, I had completed all my class requirements, wrapped up my internship, and walked across the stage at USC with a diploma in my hand. School was over. And I wasn't sure what was next.

Okay, that last sentence isn't quite true. I got extremely lucky when the agency I interned at offered me a job right after graduation as the assistant to the organization's executive director (which was basically what I was doing as an intern), so I didn't feel an overwhelming need to search for work. And I had my own apartment where I lived for the past two years. By those means you could say I was pretty damn well off. What could be so challenging about that transition?

Well, that's where my anxiety kicks in. Now I had to worry about job performance - how can I ask for help as a professional and not as an intern with a learning curve? Would I be up to the tasks required of me? How do I not get overwhelmed at work? And then there's the financial aspect of it: now that I'm getting paid, how the hell do I budget? I gotta worry about bills I never thought about - gas, power, cable, rent, healthcare. And what do I even do with my new spare time after work? It's all overwhelming and I'm shocked I've made it six months through without flipping out over it.

Maybe the reason why I haven't completely melted down over these changes is because my parents and I found ways for me to manage how to handle the new challenges of my life. Because I was hired at a place I had previously worked for, it wasn't a huge deal to create a new routine schedule revolving around when to come into work five days a week from 8 am to 4 pm. I'm also a salaried worker so I know exactly how much I'll get paid in a given two-week period. My parents found most of my bills could be paid online so I didn't have to think about mailing bills on time. I'm still trying to work on what to do with my recreational time after work so I don't fall asleep at 7pm and restore my social life from its non-existent status during grad school, but that does take time. They do say Rome wasn't built in a day.

I think maybe the answer of how to handle change is to step back, process that things will be different, and tackle adjusting to one thing at a time. It's scary for anyone to adjust to a completely new mode of life, let alone someone on the autism spectrum. And expecting to tackle all the things at once is not realistic nor healthy. So baby steps seems to be where it's at when adjusting for major life changes. It's not just easier, but relieving for all involved. And once all is said and done, you have a new normal to count on.

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