Autism inside Out – the prison and freedom of routine

I’m staring at a stray jigsaw piece on the carpet. Maybe I should pick it up and put it in the box with the others, but once again I don’t.

The truth is I’ve looked at that jigsaw piece a few times now and each time I’ve left it there. It won’t be joining the other pieces today either because today is Monday and well… clean up day is Thursday.   Similarily, I may screw up a piece of paper I’ve been writing on and throw it at the bin.  Not being the basketball type and lacking much in the way of  fine motor skills, I’m likely to miss.   The piece of paper stays where it is  because my focus is on writing, not on picking up paper.   As you’ve probably gathered by now, my house is not the tidiest of places.   That’s the routine I’m bound to.

For many people on the autism spectrum there is something almost sacrosanct about routine, a rigid adherence to patterns of behaviour which both makes no sense and paradoxically also makes perfect sense.  As children it may manifest in the lining up of toys in a particular order which never varies or a fixation with eating food in a particular order.  For those of us who are able to live independent lives as we grow older, the same features can remain, they just manifest in different ways.

Some researchers  explain rigid adherence to routines as a common feature of autism stemming from a need to impose order on an otherwise chaotic and incomprehensible world – in other words as an adaptive behaviour.  Others have seen this same fixation as part of  the neurological wiring of autism, sometimes referred to as Weak Central Cohesion Theory – a focussing on the small details at the expense of the bigger picture.  I sometimes think of it as being stuck in a  gear or groove – it may not always be the best gear or groove but it’s the one I’m comfortable with and to move out of it feels like a paradigm shift requiring an enormous effort of will, an unpleasant shattering of the safe space I’m living in.  Sometimes it isn’t just about being in a comfort zone either.  The intense focus that goes with autism is totally absorbing – the piece I’m writing is a whole lot more important than a stray piece of paper on the floor which can wait.  This may account for the Executive Dysfunction associated with autism – an inability to be organised in all parts of your life because from an autistic perspective other parts are overwhelmingly more important.

From a neurotypical perspective it may seem strange, irritating and incomprehensible – I mean why can’t you just pick up the goddamn jigsaw piece? Yes, I get that but being inflexible at times is part of the autism deal, not something I can willingly change.   And, after all, I’m inclined to wonder, why should I or anyone else change if it’s not hurting anyone else?

Ultimately, rigidity in routine is a mixed blessing – a safe, focused space to retreat to and conversely an entrapping regimen of unwavering behavior. I enjoy the safe focus and  I regret the inflexibility at times.  But autism doesn’t seem to allow for a middle ground between the two and to get rid on one would mean forgoing the other.  Perhaps this is the price you pay for enjoying the precious gifts that autism brings.

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Susan Dunne About Susan Dunne

Susan Dunne has Aspergers and works with young autistic adults. She is the author of “A Pony in the Bedroom” (Jessica Kingsley 2015), an insider account of an autistic person’s relationship with horses. She lives in Yorkshire and has 4 horses and runs a pony therapy service.