Routines are a necessary part of my life – adherence to inflexible routines is one of the more common characteristics of Aspergers and other autism spectrum disorders. They serve a purpose in that they reduce my anxiety level by making me feel comfortable through familiarity – I don’t handle change well. Any change – an interruption or obstacle that prevents me carrying a routine through to completion – causes me stress that can overload me, triggering a meltdown.
I have learned to cope with some small variations in my routines without suffering much more than discomfort – a sense of uneasiness. It’s the same sort of feeling I get when I notice that books are not arranged in order. However, major upheavals will almost always set me off.
Some of my routines take the form of a fixed sequence of actions, others are behavioural rules. An example of the former: I always wash parts of my body in the same order when I shower in the mornings. A behavioural rule: after I get up in the morning I can’t eat or drink anything until I’ve brushed my teeth. (These are just two examples – I’ve got plenty more and they’re not all related to personal hygiene.)
Most of my routines either take place in the privacy of my own home or are small and unobtrusive, generally escaping notice by people around me. For example, at home I have a particular knife and fork that I always use. A more public example: when I arrive at my desk at work the first thing I always do is place my phone in a particular place on the desk, remove the USB cable from my pocket – always the left trouser pocket, uncoil it, plug one end of the cable into my PC and then plug the other end into the phone – a small routine to be sure, but a routine nevertheless.
My inflexibility also shows when something I am expecting to happen either doesn’t, or happens in a different way. It might be that my wife has asked me what I want for dinner, I’ve said something such as pasta – having a quite specific picture of it in my head – and when I get home she’s cooked something different. You can pretty much guarantee it will be a very nice meal – she’s a talented cook – but I won’t enjoy it much because it wasn’t what I had in mind. I’m still learning how to deal with this one (ten years and counting…) and I think I’m getting better at it – sometimes I’ll be very specific about what I want and other times I’ll deliberately have no expectations. Avoiding the cause of the problem is easier than handling the end result.
Eating is another good example of my repetitive behaviour – if left to my own devices I’d most likely live off spaghetti bolognese for the rest of my days – I could happily eat the same thing for every meal, every day of the year. I don’t get bored of that, unlike the average person on the street. In fact the regularity, the predictability, is reassuring and comforting. It all ends up preventing or reducing my anxiety.