Have you ever made a phone call to schedule an appointment and the person answers and asks, “how may I help you…” and then you freeze. So much is happening there, right? You have to give an explanation of why you’re calling, you have to summarize for this gatekeeper to schedule, and you have no idea what that person will then ask you next! Individuals with Autism are often very detail oriented, so summarizing a need briefly is a challenge in and of itself. Just breaking out the essential bits of information can be so overwhelming that people often give up and just don’t make the calls.
If using the phone is a hindrance to you setting up resources you need to take care of yourself, you’re in luck. At Autism Personal Coach, many of our clients struggle with using the telephone. Over the years, we’ve developed some strategies to help. Here are just a few tips to tackle the telephone.
Lots to Process
Conversations involve rapid processing of information from the other person, making quick decisions on the spot, and then having to form a response. Many individuals with Autism struggle with this process, and so talking on the phone is a challenge. In addition, many people with Autism struggle with their working memory so the information they were able to process could be forgotten. Can you imagine having to make a decision when you forget important information relating to that decision? It’s not easy! When talking in person, at least you can be given some visual support to help with this process.
In previous blog posts we’ve talked about how not knowing the expectations can cause anxiety for individuals with Autism. This always pops up when talking on the phone. Someone may be asked questions they didn’t think they would be asked and aren’t prepared to answer. This causes the telephone experience to be stressful. Even if a person with ASD imagines a script of how the phone conversation might go, as soon as the actual conversation deviates from the script, that person might not know what to say or do.
So given all this context, what can someone do if using the telephone gives them the sweats?
Find What Works
When you call for an appointment, the secretary (or whoever else may answer) will often suggest an appointment day/time. Many times, people with ASD just take the first appointment that they are offered. Sometimes they may not be aware that they can say no thank you and either suggest another day/time or request another appointment time. Other times it may be just really hard for them to say no and advocate for themselves. So, before calling to make an appointment, try mapping out your schedule. Are there days that never work for you? Times that are always good? It helps to make a list of general time windows, such as “Thursday evenings work well for me,” or “Mondays after 1pm are never a good fit.”
We recommend listing three or four days and blocks of time on those days and writing those down. Have your calendar ready to go when you make your call, whether that’s a paper calendar or your electronic calendar.
Due to the challenges we have discussed, many times individuals with Autism shy away from phone calls and as a result don’t get better at the skill of making appointments. If one prepares for a phone call prior to making it then the call will be less stressful. As a bonus, we promise that this skill becomes easier with time and practice.
So, before practice comes preparation. It’s helpful to determine what questions you think the person will ask. Might they ask about your symptoms over the phone? Is this an urgent need or a general appointment need? Try to map out what you think they might ask. If you aren’t sure, you can ask a friend (or your coach!). Write down the answers to these questions so you have them ready–keep it short and simple. No more than a sentence or two for each question. For instance, you can say something like “I think I need to discuss medication changes” or “I’ve had a digestive concern lately,” but you don’t need to go into detail with the admin scheduling the appointment.
Don’t forget to prepare your list of days and times that work well for you, as well as days and times you know are not good for an appointment! You still might get questions you aren’t prepared for, but this will decrease the possibility of that happening.
Get the Logistics
If you’re calling for an appointment somewhere you haven’t been before, the logistics of getting to the appointment itself can feel overwhelming! While you’re making your visual aid for your phone call, don’t forget to include questions about the logistics of the appointment. Is there anything you’ll need to know about parking? About finding the office? Is it tricky to get inside the building? Make sure to ask for details you might need about bringing a service animal or finding an accessible entrance or any other needs you have. Sometimes offices mail out intake packets that include these instructions. In some instances, you can request that they send this information to you via email.
Phone a Friend
Before you call the actual office for an appointment, it’s a great idea to have someone you trust go through all the steps with you. Our coaches help clients prepare for important phone calls and sit with clients while they make the call to support them until they feel confident enough making calls on their own. Having someone there when you are making the phone call can really help reduce your anxiety because if you are starting to struggle, you know they are there to help you through the process and make sure the call ends up being a success and the appointment is made.
Be Ready for a Call Back
Some offices require you to leave a voicemail and they call you back to schedule the actual appointment. This is a common practice with psychologists or talk therapists, for example. If you know in advance that you’ll be leaving a voicemail, you can prepare a script of what to say–your name, the general reason you’re calling, and the best phone number to reach you. Some providers will correspond via email for scheduling appointments, so go ahead and leave your email address just in case this method works for your care provider!
Leaving voicemails gets tricky because when the office calls back, it can catch you off guard! If you’ve left a voicemail for a care provider, make sure you keep your visual preparation sheet and a pen/pencil handy for when they call back. Your friend (or Autism coach) can also help you prepare for a call back to schedule an appointment. You can practice finding a quiet space to take the call and practice statements like, “Can you please hold on while I move somewhere quiet?”