Dealing with Unexpected Change

Asperger’s & NLD Career Letter, April 2021

Ben was unnerved by unexpected change and it was causing problems at work. When things didn’t go according to his plan, Ben at first became anxious, and then lost his temper. He often misinterpreted the actions of others. Once, when a meeting date was changed, Ben cursed, and angrily asked the project lead, “Why are you being so disrespectful of my time?”

Ben was placed on a performance improvement plan and given 30 days to manage his outbursts. A progress meeting was scheduled for the next month.

Over the next few weeks Ben was able to control his temper. On the day of the progress meeting he felt positive. Arriving at the conference room, he was shocked.

In addition to his supervisor, a representative from human resources was there. Ben interpreted her presence to mean that his performance would be criticized. He also discovered that 30 minutes had been allocated, when he thought the meeting would last 10 minutes or less. He began to panic, and then the anxiety turned to anger. Ben declared in a loud voice that he did not believe that he should be criticized, and did not want to participate in the meeting.

When the human resources representative said that he was not going to be criticized, Ben accused her of lying. A heated exchange followed, and finally Ben was told that he was making everyone very uncomfortable. If Ben could not regain his composure, the meeting would be over.

Ben managed to calm down and apologized. He explained that he was on the autism spectrum and had a life-long difficulty dealing with unexpected change.

His supervisor had a nephew on the spectrum and was sympathetic to Ben. However, he made it clear that Ben had to learn to control his emotions and interact with colleagues in a professional manner.

I learned early on in our coaching sessions that Ben did not consider the context of a situation. Together we considered the progress meeting from a different perspective. It is the job of human resources personnel to document whether performance goals are being met. Additionally, since there were no emotional outbursts in the previous weeks, there was nothing for which Ben could be criticized. And the 30-minute length would give everyone a chance to discuss progress and whether any adjustments were needed.

I taught Ben the skill of “mental previewing.” This means thinking about up-coming events in advance and anticipating what is likely to occur. One can then plan responses to various scenarios.

Ben and I previewed an up-coming birthday lunch for a co-worker. Since it was a celebratory occasion, we anticipated that little or no work would be discussed. He thought of topics to bring up with his colleagues, such as their plans for the weekend. However, since the lunch would take place on a workday, he would be expected to wear his usual office attire.

Based on previous birthday lunches, Ben knew that attendees would each contribute to the cost of the birthday guest’s lunch and that gifts would not be exchanged.

At his next coaching session, Ben reported that the birthday celebration was much less stressful for him than in the past.

Of course, it is not possible to predict exactly what will happen in the future. However mental previewing can help a person to make good guesses about what will likely occur, and create a plan for how to react. Other clients who have used this technique have reported feeling less vulnerable and anxious.

Copyright 2021, Barbara Bissonnette, Forward Motion Coaching