Processing Time is Key to Coping with Unexpected Change

Catherine Londero

Even if the change seems small, it will still need to be processed and preferably before you go to bed!

By Catherine Londero

Consider anything that is unexpected

I have always been aware that struggling with change is a trait of being autistic and I definitely identified with that with the bigger changes in life. However, the impact smaller changes have on us is not always as obvious. I have started to view change as anything happening that is unexpected. By digging deeper into this I have gone on to consider that every time you leave the house or even every time you enter into communication with someone else, you will experience unexpected or unplanned changes.

Weather is a good example of something that is changeable. This may not be much the case depending where you live, but imagine you do live somewhere that has unpredictable weather. You leave the house and you experience a change in temperature. I obsess over the weather; I check my weather app several times a day (I do live in the UK!). It helps me make decisions on what to wear and particularly if the weather is going to change at a time of day when I plan to go out. This is a way that I help myself deal with change, I try to manage the impact. However, if I go out with my gilet on, because I have checked the weather app and there is a 7% chance of rain, then it starts to rain; it completely throws me. I hate to get my sleeves wet, which is what happens when you wear a gilet in the rain. Most of all, I cannot believe that the weather app got it wrong!

I just about manage to come to terms with the change in weather but then I bump into one of my son’s mums on the way to school. I don’t know her that well, but well enough to carry on walking and talking together for the whole journey. I hadn’t actually realised that my brain was planning on processing the morning’s activities on my quiet walk to school and now it is being side-tracked by: making conversation, checking I don’t say anything inappropriate and trying to remember the name of the mum’s daughter (I know she is in my son’s class and the mum knows my son’s name, so I feel I should know hers).

I get home and my brain is fizzing. I haven’t been able to process my morning and I now have more processing to do from the conversation with the mum. On top of that, I am exhausted from having to mask unexpectedly.

A single mundane task which goes differently to normal, can throw me off for the rest of the day. Subconsciously, my brain anticipates and allows space for what it will be needed for each day; when it is then needed for additional processing, it sends me off balance. It is why I feel at my most relaxed when I know I am not leaving the house. This is the place where unexpected change is minimal.

So how do we allow for all these unplanned and unexpected changes in our day? This is where processing time comes in.

Processing Time

What exactly is processing time? It allows space and time when your brain can work its way through an event; answering questions, resolving any uncertainties and identifying what emotions are linked to it. If I do a task that is predictable and I do it frequently, I can prepare my brain for the emotion associated, so it automatically knows what to expect. This leaves very little left to process. The issue comes when you cannot predict the emotion associated with the event; especially when it can evoke a number of different emotions and, even worse, at the same time.

To understand the significance of this it can help to think of the effect if we don’t process an event….. anxiety! Your brain cannot understand the strong emotions whirring round, so it defaults to anxiety, as it assumes you are in danger. You go to bed feeling like this and likely won’t sleep. You may eventually work out the answer to your questions but by now, it is the middle of the night and you are not able to think clearly enough to send the resolved message to your brain, so the anxiety persists. This can all be avoided by processing everything you need to process earlier in the day.

How to work out the processing time you need

I have highlighted how it is very rare for us to get through a day without any form of unexpected change. This is why you need to allow for the likelihood of the smallest of changes on an average day, as this will increase your standard processing time. Everyone’s processing time is different but you can easily work yours out.

Next time there is an unexpected phone call or you bump into someone and make chit chat, make a conscious effort to process this activity and see how long it takes you. Also, try to work out what is the best environment for you to process it. You might need to be outdoors, in your back garden or prefer to be shut away in a quiet part of the house, where you know you won’t get disturbed.

Then make sure that each day has enough contingency time to allow for this. It is also important that you don’t rely on moments in your day for processing, if there is a risk you might get interrupted, especially if that interruption will lead to you needing to process that too. My weather and school walk examples demonstrate this. You need to take into account what your plans are and the more you are out of the house, the more chances are of unexpected changes.

This can then lead onto how you plan your week. If you have one day which involves being out for a few hours then you are going to need to allow extra processing time for this later on that day if at all possible. If you don’t make these allowances and don’t have enough time to process events, this can lead to you becoming overloaded and if not tackled over a longer period, then it can result in autistic burnout.

Acknowledging that the mundane can be anything but!

I also find it helpful to acknowledge those regular tasks which often end up with unpredictable outcomes. You might go and collect your monthly prescription from the chemist, a simple task. But this chemist is sometimes empty and sometimes completely full of people waiting. This time you go in and, after waiting for ten minutes, it turns out they haven’t received your prescription yet so you then have to go next door to the doctors to chase it up. This all involves more interaction than you planned for and the added anxiety that your prescription isn’t ready.

It really helps to prepare for this regular task as if it were much bigger and more formal. Ultimately, if you find something challenging, stressful or anxiety inducing then it is worthwhile taking the time to prepare for it and allow extra processing time for afterwards. I find it helps to go through a few possible scenarios and reassure myself that I can then move on to the next task depending on the result. Preparing from the comfort of my sofa when I have my candles on and am in my happy place, means that when I am in a busy environment and someone is shouting over the counter that they don’t have my prescription, I can just refer to my mental checklist to see what response is needed and what to do next.

Having time left over once you have processed the day’s events is important too. You can sit back, relax and watch the TV, or have a bath without that niggling feeling you have forgotten something or that unavoidable thought that you cling on to and cannot let go of until it is resolved.

Acknowledge and allow

There are two important things to remember here. One is to acknowledge that all unexpected changes do affect us. Two is to allow for the extra processing time you need every day to work through the unexpected changes you will definitely face. Once you have done this, then you can add on more processing time for days which are busier and more uncertain, ensuring your baseline for an average day is always covered.

Catherine Londero

I am an Autistic/ADHDer who writes children’s stories. I was recently diagnosed with Autism at the age of 39! I am a proud mum to two boys, aged 5 and 2. They are my inspiration and the reason I started writing children’s stories. I create neurodivergent main characters and use my stories to show children that they are perfect as they are, even if they feel different.

Through my blogs, I want to help raise awareness about neurodiversity and how it can affect so many people who don’t even know it applies to them. I have faced many challenges through being undiagnosed Autistic and if more people understand what to look for, then children can get support much sooner.

A collection of my writing about Autism and ADHD can be found at You can also find me on Twitter at

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