Anyone that knows me, knows I am caught between the need for routine and the need for complete openness. Some things I am extremely open about-usually dealing with people’s opinions or even favorite food items because there is so much variety in the world and I want to valid, honor and support each one that doesn’t harm myself or another. However, despite what it may look like on the surface, there are several things that are part of my “routine” that I am so stuck in. I wanted to talk about this because originally–I didn’t think I was so stuck in a routine until I noticed I was getting upset for no reason when plans changed, when something wasn’t set up the way I like it and when I thought I was stepping outside the box but actually forming my own triangle square in my own world.
One of the first things to note about routine is its definition: routine means no change. Changing the routine of an autistic person can be extremely threatneing to their neurological health. Yes-simply put their brain health. How they keep processing/act/ functioning. My son (who is officially diagnosed) has a routine about going to the zoo. We see certain animals in a certain order, take certain walking paths. If we went to the zoo and went a different way–he notices the change. The one time we did this without talking to him prior–he looked back at me worried and complained. It looks like a tantrum forming but it was a worried face not a sad face. If I had not actknowledged him, addressed his concern and reassured him, he would have continued to escalate getting upset. Some times he has a major meltdown. He does also continue to massively chew on his jacket sleeve. My husband and I see the change because we are aware of our child’s needs.But others may not see the change in going in near the monkeys versus going in near the Koalas and Australian birds is huge for our son.
I have a similar need in my routine. But it looks different. This is why all autistic people look different and its something all people should consider when getting to know an autistic person. While I am okay going to the monkey entrance or the Koala entrance–I have a specific animal I want to see: A Red Panda. And if I don’t see that animal, I get frustrated because it is my special interest. Not only it is a rare animal and endangered, but it is a calming animal to me and reflects my identity. So not seeing this animal is comparable to leaving a little piece of me behind. It provides me a safe image of my identity. And while my son gets upset by the visual change of routine. I get upset by the spatial change. In addition if we go into a section of an animal I don’t like (i’m not the greatest fan of apes) and DO NOT see my favorite –then I will be in a bad mood by accident the rest of the night. My brain spends half the evening processing why we didn’t go, why that’s okay and when can we go back to see the Red Panda.
While people who are autistic thrive on routine–it is not always for reasons you think. If you told me I must eat the same thing every day, I’d probably cry. However, there are autistic and ADHD kids who only eat one food every day for years because they want that routine. It’s safe. It’s fun. Why change? But if you told me this-I get upset because I’m being forced into a block I know I don’t fit into or that there are alternative options. Contrastingly–if you told me I can only eat for 6 hours a day, I jump at the chance to participate because it allows for flexibility in a controlled environment (this is called intermittent fasting in case you’re interested.) I am safe, I can be myself. This is something autistic adults and children are speaking out is all they want. To be themselves and to know that is okay.
Think about your routines. Maybe they are not where you think. And maybe supporting those who are autistic, ADHD or even OCD involve figuring out the whys and hows of their routines, not just the whats and filling in the blanks.