For a person on the autism spectrum, learning to prioritize among multiple options can be overwhelming. Every single one of life’s ordinary glitches—or even choosing between two conflicting activities—can provoke agonizing anxiety. For my daughter, who enjoys catchy phrases, I’ve loosely defined the problem as learning to tell the difference between mountains and molehills. Unfortunately for Samantha, many molehills look and feel like Mt. Everest to her.
Most actors would be thrilled to be invited and PAID to speak or sing, even if it conflicts with a previous appointment or possible casting in a future role—but not my daughter. Once my daughter makes a commitment, all hell breaks loose inside her mind if she has to change plans.
Samantha is NOT soothed by the idea that there are exceptions to nearly all rules in the entertainment world. Even when I remind her that our theater director would have PROUDLY excused her from a play performance, if she had landed the guest role on The Good Doctor, Samantha still doesn’t understand how to prioritize one career opportunity over another in a polite and professional manner. In her calmer moments, she understands that the goal is to “mix and match,” and find a way to work out a conflict (or potential conflict) so she can perform in two shows, speak at the U.N. or even just go on a family vacation! Samantha recently allowed me to help her (a feat in itself!) juggle two back to back shows with several conflicting rehearsals WITHOUT screaming or sending angry, unprofessional emails or texts. This was a milestone moment.
Samantha also hates to disappoint her friends when a rehearsal or career opportunity forces to her cancel a social commitment or attend a birthday event.
“Will they understand why I’m cancelling? We planned this date a long time ago! I made a commitment to my friends. I don’t want to disappoint them or hurt their feelings. What should I tell them?”
My answer is always the same. “Your friends will understand that your work comes first. They would make the same decision, if they were in your shoes. I promise that your friends’ parents would give them the same advice I’m giving you.”
We are making progress on the career vs. friends conundrum, but dealing with every day glitches and frustrations is going more slowly. For example, today I asked if her voice coach had given her the thumb drive for her cabaret performance.
“Why are you asking me?” Her tone suggests she is morphing into a porcupine.
“Daddy wants to make a disk of your fabulous cabaret performance to play for people,” I try to sound soothing and motivate her to answer my question by appealing to her ego.
No luck. “I don’t know….I don’t think so….I don’t REMEMBER!
My daughter is simmering, while I try to model restraint and reason. Neither one of us really understands the gizmo called a thumb drive, except that it’s a necessary evil in storing and sharing information. “How about if you look for it in your purse,” I suggest.
She rummages through her purse and tote bag in an ever-increasing fury. “I can’t f*ing find it! I DON’T KNOW WHERE IT IS! Why are you asking for something I can’t find?” Her porcupine quills are flying at me.
“How about if you stop screaming and let me help me help you look for it? Why make a mountain out of a molehill?”
Mercifully, Samantha quiets down and allows me to search her bag, which is stuffed with loose change, medication vials, tampons and at least 27 pens, pencils and sharpies (many of them nonfunctional). Eventually, I manage to unearth the thumb drive. Then I ask her to gather up all of the loose change into a zip lock bag and show it to her life skills coach. “If you and your coach, clean out and organize your bag, you will have fewer misplaced items (aka molehills) turning into mountains.”
Samantha tries to compare her meltdown over the missing thumb drive to my own upset several weeks ago when I couldn’t find my cell phone in our apartment. The ringer was turned off, and I was running late for an appointment. “Not the same,” I explain. “I raised my voice in frustration at the situation, but I wasn’t yelling at YOU.”
I don’t know when (or whether) my daughter understands the difference between her many extreme outbursts over small (sometimes imaginary!) conflicts and inconveniences and my rare fury over a misplaced cell phone (which I found under a blanket on my bed). But I do know that Samantha still needs to learn how to categorize life’s every day problems in a calmer, more appropriate manner, so she doesn’t wear herself out (and everyone else around her). Also, she will need to save her strength and keep her wits about in a real emergency situation.
We are at peace again when she leaves to meet her life skills coach. Then I send an email about today’s molehill that ALMOST became Mount Vesuvius and copy Samantha.
Sooner or later most people learn the difference between mountains and molehills. For a person with autism like my daughter, I hope she learns sooner, but I accept that I must settle for later.