The 'Arrival Anxiety' That Comes With Having Autism


“Arrival anxiety.” That is what I have always called it. It is, in my mind, the best way to describe it.

It does not matter where we are going or how often we have or haven’t been there — it happens. I see the change in my son’s demeanor immediately. It happens so quickly, like walking though a door; on one side he is happy and the other side he is full of anxiety.

I always dreaded the birthday party invitation when my son, DC, was little. The first half hour, sometimes more, was spent trying to calm him down. No matter how much I tried to prepare him beforehand, he would scream, cry, flap and resort to very loud noises. Everyone stared and the other children would huddle with their parents because they were either afraid, nervous or both. Most of the time, he would eventually calm down, but how I always dreaded our entrance.

After awhile, I realized that the mention of a party meant “cake” to DC. He was expecting cake as soon as he arrived. He didn’t understand why he had to bowl or play games; he was only there for the food. Once I realized this, I just stopped calling these events we had to attend “parties.” We were going bowling or to someone’s house or a picnic. Believe it or not, this helped a great deal with his “birthday arrival anxiety.”

young boy at a party

It still happened, of course, but it was not as severe. Afterwards when we talked about the party and whether he had fun, I would then refer to it as a party in the hopes that he would at some point realize that yes, it was a party, and there was no cake at the door, but he had a good time anyway.

I remember being invited to my friend’s house for her daughter’s graduation party. Again, this was not going to be described as a party; I called it a picnic. We were there for a good while before DC saw one of the tablecloths (a party tablecloth). I saw his eyes widen and he signed “party” with a question on his face as if he were asking “Is THIS a PARTY??” Fortunately by that time, it was time for cake. Eventually he did begin to understand that a party meant more than just cake and our arrivals were not so traumatic.

This “arrival anxiety” continues today; of course, not as bad as when he was younger, but he still has an immediate change in personality, temperament and expression upon arrival to almost anywhere. You might think he is anxious about places he doesn’t want to go, or places he’s never been and yes, those are some factors, but his highest level of anxiety happens when we are going to places he loves to or has been looking forward to going.

Part of this is just anxiety, plain and simple, but as with the earlier birthday issues, a lot of it is about the fact that DC always has an agenda in his head. Whether or not I hear about the agenda over and over again, I know it’s there.

At the times when we are going to places he really loves, like Disney or New York City, I do hear about his agenda for quite awhile before we arrive. He’s excited all the way there and the anxiety kicks in the moment we arrive. His face changes and he begins spewing random words or phrases — “Another one, another one” or “Froggy, froggy, froggy” or whatever the random word of the day might be. He gets himself so wrapped up in his head about what he wants to do and is in such a hurry to do all of it that he just can’t control himself.

Last week we went to New York City for his birthday. We park in the same parking garage every time we’re there because it is pretty much centrally located and walking distance to all of the places he wants to go. Each time, as soon as he gets out of the car, he begins yelling out his random words, clenching his fists and making his loud noises. An observer would really think that he hated being there. He does this all along the route to Times Square or whatever our first stop might be. I was impressed that on our trip that weekend the “arrival anxiety” was quite minimal and he was over it by the time we left the garage. One step forward…

Yesterday afternoon, I told DC that we would be going out to eat for dinner. I never mentioned where and he never asked. When we arrived at a place in town that after 21 years living here we’ve never been before (I was always under the impression that it was a bar until we received a gift certificate for dinner), DC was upset and the whole routine began and continued for an extended period of time — even after he discovered they had all of his favorites on the menu.

We’ve been to new places before – often. But again, I think that when he heard we were going out, he had a few ideas in his head about where we would be going. He often has ideas about where we will be eating, usually more than one. If by chance we do not go to one of the places he had in his head, but it turns out to be a place he knows, there is no problem. Or if I tell him the name of a new place, there is no problem. This was not one of those times. It was not a place in his “mind file”  and it was not an alternate restaurant that he knows he likes but just didn’t think of. It was new.

He did order all of his favorites (all of them) and eventually had a “wonderful time” (DC-speak). I am sure he would be happy to go back again sometime.

Because I neglected to tell him that this was a place he’d never been before (my fault), I will rate last night as only 1/2 a step back. 

This post originally appeared on Taking It a Step at a Time.

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