Routines: Why are they important?
Fergus Murray is a writer and educator who often writes for the website A Thinking Person's Guide to Autism. He wrote one article titled "Understanding How Routines Can Help Autistic People" to outline how crucial routines are to the average person and how they can aid autistic people in their day to day lives. Routines are typically seen as important to all of us, even more so for people with autism. However, there are dangers to assuming that autistic people need routines because routines that are imposed by other people can risk doing more harm than good. The first thing to note is that routines simplify things. Routines give us one less thing to think about and relieve some cognitive load in a world that can often times be overwhelming and uncertain. Routines allow us to know what happens next, prepare for it, or not have to make too many decisions, and put in a lot of mental work. Autistic people tend to have what is known as a monotropic thinking style, meaning that their brain finds it difficult to keep track of too may things at once. Routines can be comforting because they allow relief from having to try, by falling into a familiar pattern. They provide the opportunity to focus on one thing, get through the routine, step by step, and see the task through to completion; routines bring a sense of comfort or satisfaction. Autistic people are not the only ones who benefit from routines, however, non-autistic people's routines are seen as more socially acceptable and it may be easier for them to deal with the aftermath when things don't work out. The next thing to note about routines is shattered expectations. It can be pretty unsettling for anyone when they expect things to go one way and they don't turn out; it can feel like having something snatched away. For people with autism, this can feel like a crisis. They spend most of their lives in a state of uncertainty, so routines can feel like an island of stability, a nice simple model in their heads of what is supposed to happen. The more secure they feel, the more they invest in something. Autistic people tend to experience a lot of inertia, which is hyperfocus or fixation that may result in difficulty starting a task, changing activities or focus, or performing a task without full understanding of what needs to be done and why. When these routines get disrupted it means discarding all expectations, abruptly changing course, and probably starting from scratch; autistic inertia makes that extremely uncomfortable. Murray describes his experience with this as feeling as if he is constantly trying to execute an old trajectory, grabbing each expectation one by one to make sure they come with him or else he continues to expect things that he knows, consciously, are not going to happen. The third thing to note about routine is pathological demands. Sometimes the routines we try to impose on ourselves can backfire because they conflict with our need to feel in control. People with autism are typically rule-followers because that helps them to make sense of the unpredictable world and attain a sense of security and stability. That means that they also tend to have a very limited tolerance for wrongness and rules or routines that don't make very much sense "Irrational routines and illogical rules do not contribute to a sense of safety." These tend to feel more like unreasonable demands that erode a person's sense of autonomy, especially if they infringe on time spent pursuing what a person is most interested in. For an autistic person the world can often times strike feelings of anxiety or being overwhelmed with its social demands and intense sensory stimuli; feeling in control is the only escape. Some people with autism may start subtly stimming, or it may take more than that to make them feel as if they are "on top of things" Sometimes feeling in control may mean sticking to routines or maybe abandoning the ones that are not flexible enough to meet all of a person's needs. There is often tension between a sense of restlessness and a need for predictability, so picking routines that are comfortable and work best for any given person is best. In conclusion, finding routines that work might take a bit of experimentation, but finding the right balance between autonomy and consistency can really lighten the mental load and help make sure that things get done. Routines may not work for all autistic people, but if they do, they can be a valuable tool.