One of the diagnostic criteria for autism is the reliance upon routines.
These routines can be more obvious or stereotypical, such as washing hands three times or needing to do particular things in a particular sequence.
For others, this phenomenon can be more subtle, such as watching the same shows before bed, or doing the same things in the same order.
The latter scenario may not look too different from the habits of people who are not on the spectrum, which can make the spectrum people tougher to spot. Indeed, many of these people may not even realize they’re on the spectrum.
So what’s the difference between those on the spectrum with subtle, ordinary-looking routines and the customs of the rest of the world? I think the answer lies in what happens when those routines get disturbed; the non-spectrum people can roll with the change just fine, whereas those on the spectrum may react negatively to what is for them (us) a huge and unwelcome disruption that can take a while to recover from. I can get downright irritable if my routine is disturbed, especially if the disturbance is sudden/unexpected.
I’ll give a major recent example…
When my partner started school in the nearest big city to ours, my life changed, too. He’s legally blind and thus, the transportation responsibility fell to me. Suddenly, I was faced with a whole set of changes and unfamiliar places and activities. We had to get up and leave the house an hour earlier. We had to take some routes we hadn’t taken in a while and others we’d never taken at all. I had to anticipate everything that I would need throughout the day and make sure I brought it with me.
His starting school was planned and expected. However, the day-to-day nuances of how this would manifest were a series of new requirements (on my part, such as learning new driving directions and such), and new tidbits of unfamiliar information.
Those first few weeks were stressful; every day that deviated from the before-school life was difficult. I forgot to bring something each day. It took me a long time to form a “school day version” of my checklist. Not only did I have to bring my laptop (which was normal), I also had to bring its power cord (a new thing to remember for me); not only did I have to bring my cell phone (normal), but I also had to remember the wall charger (new). I t also took me forever to learn the various routes (multiple options are needed due to traffic and time of day). I also had to think ahead (one of my challenges); since I wouldn’t be in the office every day, I had to look several days ahead to determine what I needed to bring with me to work on.
Once at the school, I had to stake out my spot in the school’s library, get my bearings in that new and foreign environment, and mentally and physically make myself at home. It took me a while to learn to focus and be able to work in that strange environment that was not my own homey office.
In the end, I did it, but I think it was probably tougher–and probably took longer–for me than it would for someone not on the spectrum. It took five months before I knew the route without having to ask my partner for directions.
But of course, that’s not the only forum in which my need for routine reveals itself…
I have a daily routine that serves me well (usually) during the week. I wake up, eat a bowl of oatmeal, take my supplements, and gather my work-related belongings. Before walking out the door, I run through my mental checklist:
- Removable hard drive
- Pouch (which clips to my jeans pocket and contains all of my card-sized necessities, such as my driver’s license, credit cards, truck mechanic’s business card, AAA membership card, etc; this also holds my mobile phone)
- Any work-related materials I brought home that must be brought back to the office with me
- Supplement baggie
- Lunch supplies (I make a gluten-free sunflower seed butter and honey sandwich for lunch – every day)
- Any magazines I’ve recently bought for the office for our office’s front lobby
And we leave for work. Locking the door, I always tell the cats to “vayan con los padres in el cielo”, which, in my crude competence of the Spanish language, means “go/walk with the parents in the sky”, a head-nod to the Pagan yin-yang of God and Goddess–essentially wishing safety and wellbeing to the feline fur-kids as we leave. I add, “te amo y te amo”, which means to tell each individually that I love them. In saying this, I’ve bidden farewell to the cats, as well as “anchored” my locking of the door in my memory, as a way of ensuring that I remembered to do it.
Once at the office, I enter my individual office and disperse my belongings in their proper places, and then go outside to walk in nature in the surrounding tree-populated area, breathe the fresh breezy air, and collect my thoughts. Essentially, this helps me to “task-switch” between “home mode” and “office mode”, which is indeed a drastic switch for me to make. It is because of this necessary transition time that I don’t meet with anyone for the first hour of my being at the office.
If I do meet with people, I tend to do so only in the mornings, so that by lunchtime I’m finished “peopling”, and I can settle in and do what I do best for the duration of the afternoon, which is to work independently, without interruption. The only noise might be my Pandora’s “House MD” channel, a custom internet radio station I created around the music used in the show House MD, which anchors me back to that show (which is one of the few shows that I love) and in a strange and semi-cheesy way, helps me feel smarter and more focused, like Dr. House and his team. This might indeed be silly, but it works surprisingly well for me. I’m more likely to stay focused and my thoughts are less likely to drift and dissipate.
After work, we head home. I set my work-related belongings in the same place every day, exchange my jeans for pajamas (usually light sweat pants), dish up my dinner, and make a beeline for my spot on the couch, where all of my nighttime necessities surround me: SoBe water, my laptop and its removable harddrive, and my same dessert snack.
My routine has become the backbone of my day; it’s the rock-solid foundation of my sanity, my competence. Having my routine in place–and sticking to it–helps me sequence my activities with such fluidity that nobody questions whether or not there is something “wrong” (different) about me. It helps me function from day to day, each day, throughout the entire day.
Anything not already incorporated into my routine tends to be forgotten. Starting on a new supplement? Whoops. Having to make a stop at a new place on the way home? Easily forgotten (cue the irritation when we get very close to that place before my partner decides to say anything, and then I have to make some serious last-minute lane-changes in order to make the correct turn!).
Having to travel, even for only a weekend trip, even if it’s something I’ve been looking forward to, always sends me for a loop. I have a “Pack List” on my smartphone, organized into categories of items – Clothing, Toiletries, etc. Will the weather be chilly? I have an extra clothing sub-list, which includes scarves, boots, gloves, and sweaters. Am I going to a conference? I have a list for the extra items I’ll need, such as a fresh notebook for note-taking, my smaller laptop with the presentations preloaded, my hearing aids, and plenty of easy-writing medium-point pens. Am I renting a car? I have a list for those extra necessities, such as my vehicle-based mobile charger and my music CD collection.
All of these lists are combined into that one master “Pack List” for easy access, which especially comes in handy when I’m in a hurry (usually because I’ve put it off–sometimes by choice, sometimes not–until the last minute). Without that list, I’d be screwed. That list has become the backbone of my travel routine. And the travel-themed routine has become the source of my sanity when I need to leave town.
Routine provides me with security. It’s pre-established, tried and true. Obviously, every element of the routine has its use and has helped me in some way, because otherwise, I would not have continued to include that element.
Routine provides me with something familiar and long-term to fall back on, especially when I’m confused or flustered, wondering what to do next. It helps under stress. It helps during those periods in which I lose my focus or motivation. It propels me forward, keeping me going.
Routine helps diminish and relieve my pervasive baseline stress. Each element of the routine is one less decision or judgment call I have to make, one less thing I have to think about or remember, one less potential pitfall in my day. It’s already there, simply waiting for me to follow it. Those decisions and judgment calls have already been made, and I already have experiential empirical data that show that they already work for me. The routine is a set of chances and risks I don’t have to take.
My routine is choreographed. I don’t have to process. I don’t have to consider. I don’t have to weight pros and cons.
It’s just there.