Why Is Disappointment so Agonizing for Autistics?

A woman looking sad and pensive surrounded by dark blue and black color with text that reads, "Why is disappointment so agonizing for autistics?"

Why is disappointment so agonizing for autistics?

This blog post is part question, part theory.

I know from my own experience that when something does not happen the way we expect it to happen, it is practically physically painful for us.


You said you wanted to get together for lunch, and we spent the week emotionally preparing ourselves for the social interaction, and, last-minute, you decide to go see a movie with your cousin who just unexpectedly arrived in town.

Once we get the text or call that the activity we had planned isn’t going to happen, we don’t know what to do with ourselves.

– Jaime A. Heidel – The Articulate Autistic

See, we thrive on doing things in order. A, B, C, D, in exactly that order. If A doesn’t happen, we can’t easily move on to B.

We can’t skip over or delay A because our thoughts and way of navigating the world demand this order.

Can we move on? Eventually, yes, but something that seems like only a minor inconvenience to a neurotypical (non-autistic) person (like rescheduling lunch plans) may be both cognitively and emotionally devastating to an autistic person.

It’s like we get stuck and have no idea what to do with ourselves. It’s like we tried to turn the page to the next chapter of a book and found it blank!

Another thing I’ve noticed is that neurotypical (NT) people seem to make social promises that are mutually understood by NT people as social graces and not meant to be taken seriously!

Stuff like “We should get together” or “If there’s anything I can do” rarely means those exact things. It’s very similar to “Hello” and “How are you?” Nobody expects the truth, it’s just social etiquette.

Things like this confused and hurt me deeply when I was younger because I took everything said to me completely literally.

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The best way to improve communication with your autistic loved one is to understand how your autistic loved one’s mind works! Intentions, motivations, and personal expressions (facial expressions or lack thereof, body language, etc.), are often quite different in autistic people than they are in neurotypical people.

Experience a better understanding of your autistic loved one by reading books about life from an autistic perspective as well as stories that feature autistic characters. You’ll have so many “Ah ha!” moments and start seeing your autistic loved one in a different light (and you’ll have a better understanding of their behaviors, which you may have been misinterpreting up until now).

Books I recommend for a better understanding of your autistic loved one:

Example from my life:

Nearly 20 years ago now, I actually got ready for a date once because someone I was casually seeing said they might like to go out that coming weekend.

We had no further discussion about it and didn’t talk at all during the week, but I got ready and waited and waited for her to pick me up at the time we’d agreed upon, but she’d gone out to meet friends without me.

It meant absolutely nothing to her, but I told her never to call me again because I couldn’t trust her. And I ended a lot of budding friendships that way until I knew I wasn’t being betrayed, I was just misunderstanding.

Granted, I still don’t see the logic in making what I refer to as “fake promises”, but I’ve learned through painful disappointment and embarrassment that this is just the way the neurotypical world seems to work, and, since it’s mutually understood between NT people, they don’t get offended or hurt nearly as easily when things don’t go as “planned” because there were never any real plans to begin with.

Does your autistic loved one appear to be “all or nothing” with emotions? Either seeming completely disconnected or painfully emotional with no in between? It’s not drama, it’s not exaggerated, it’s autistic empathy. Click on the photo below to learn more about autistic empathy.

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