The year that I was six, I was sick on my birthday, it rained when we went to Disneyland, and I didn’t get the Baby Alive doll for Christmas. That was disappointing. The year that I was twenty-six, I didn’t get a big job I applied for, my son was diagnosed with autism, and my then-husband announced that he wanted to be separated. All rather disappointing (at least at the time).
We all have our own ways of dealing with disappointment. Some indulge in retail therapy, some take a hot bath, some tell themselves that something wasn’t meant to be. Some get angry and frustrated, or sad. Some take it out on themselves. Disappointment is another emotion that autistic teens are faced with learning how to manage. Of course, all people must, but for someone who has trouble identifying and dealing with difficult emotions, it’s that much harder.
Nigel’s NT friend Riley was supposed to spend the night last night as a positive reinforcement for Nigel cleaning his room. He earned it, and he was really looking forward to it. Then Riley called to say that he hadn’t fully recovered from an illness yet and couldn’t make it. Nigel seemed okay at first and retained his composure on the phone, which impressed me, but afterward I could tell that he was definitely upset. He yanked his hair in his fists and shut himself in his room, where he proceeded to knock a bunch of stuff on the floor he had worked so hard to clean. “I cleaned my room for nothing,” he sneered.
After a few minutes, I went in and sat with him on his bed. I acknowledged his disappointment. Then I gently reminded him of the exercise he had recently done in his social skills workbook called When Plans Change. In it, he learned to create a visual image of changing the plan in his head by removing the old plan, represented by a Post-It note with “Old Plan” written on it and stuck to his forehead, and applying a new plan (a Post-It note with “New Plan” written on it). The new plan consisted of dinner out at his favorite Mexican restaurant, going out to get ice cream, and renting a movie of his choice. And the assurance that Riley would spend the night on a future weekend.
“New Plan” seemed to be an acceptable consolation prize, even though I could tell he was still having a tough time, still wishing his friend could be here. Last night he kept coming out of his room spouting random movie echolalia, which he usually does when stressed. Later, he started coming out of his room talking about bully revenge plans. I think he was displacing his disappointment about his friend not coming over onto a scapegoat of sorts, which seemed to help him. I was glad he found something that worked. Whatever way it rains on our proverbial parades, we all learn to deal with disappointment, whether it’s by doing something to make ourselves feel better or by visualizing Post-It notes on our foreheads. And sometimes a little note helps more than we realize. It might even help us get what we want for Christmas.