Surprise! Some of us don’t like surprises

In the post holiday period I got to thinking about surprises.  I think there are two sorts of surprises. One is the “expected surprise” which is not the oxymoron it sounds like. The other is the unexpected surprise.Expected surprises

What is an expected surprise? It is one where you know something is going to happen, but you don’t know exactly what. The clearest example is gift-getting at holidays and birthdays.  Most kids know they are going to get something for Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa or whatever; similarly, they know that they will get something for their birthday.  A type of expected surprise for some adults is the year-end bonus, at least in some jobs. Performance reviews can also fall into this category.

Unexpected surprises

These are what we usually think of as surprises. All those things that happen that we just weren’t expecting. They can be good or bad and big or little and they can affect almost any aspect of life.

NT people and surprises

For neurotypical (NT) people, a lot of these surprises are pleasant. Using gift-getting, the anticipation of “what will I get” can add to the joy of getting something (especially if you wind up getting what you wanted!) Other surprises are at least bearable – NT people can roll with the punch of, say, a change in schedule. Of course, even for neurotypical people, some surprises are devastating (e.g. a death of someone close).

NLD and surprises

For many (but by no means all) people with nonverbal learning disabilities, it is much harder to deal with surprises. The anticipation of a gift can be almost overwhelmingly stressful. Similarly, a change in schedule can totally derail some NLD people. I am not sure why this is, but I think it’s because the stressfulness and chaos of the world is much greater for NLDers than for NTers. A lot of what NT people automatically assimilate is difficult for us; this adds to a sort of “background stress” that makes further stress much less enjoyable or bearable.

What to do?

If your child is like this, then you can pick out gifts together. Or you can tell the child in advance what he or she is getting. If that seems too extreme, you could avoid the “night before Christmas” stress by giving out gifts on Christmas Eve (also, that means your kid won’t wake you  up at 4 AM on Christmas morning!). Other surprises may be harder to anticipate; but you can lessen some stress by not making exact statements about future events when you only know approximately what will happen.


  1. Judy Silman-Greenspan says

    Hello Peter,
    Interesting perspective. I have not felt these things to which you refer.
    However, I care for my 90 year old mother who has an anger management problem that gets worse with age & maybe even NLD herself.
    When I object to more use of my time than I had planned I do get distressed when she adds more & more things she wants me to do. I tell her that I like to know these things in advance. Her reaction to this is that I am rigid, run trains the like the Nazis. If I tell here it is because of NLD she will criticize me for it later.
    Any ideas how to cope?

  2. I don’t have any brilliant ideas on this one, Judy, especially considering the relationship. Parents are hard!


  3. andrea luxenburg says

    A lot of my discomfort with surprises seems to be due to an inability to think “on the fly.” I have carefully worked out how to deal with a situation in advance, so if the situation changes without warning, I don’t know what to do, and have difficulty processing it in “real time.” This can be something as simple as walking into a classroom and finding that my usual seat is occupied. Now I have to scan the room, figure out what seats are available, whether I can reach one without tripping over something, whether I can see the board from there – and while I have stood blocking the entrance for five minutes or so, someone takes the seat I finally decided might work, and I have to start all over again.

  4. Good points, Andrea

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