When is a routine not a routine?

Written in March 2022

The conventional wisdom is that autistic people need routine, and that we can become very distressed when a routine isn't followed, or is changed without it being our decision. While there is some truth to this, unfortunately, there's a bit of a mix up in terms of what constitutes a routine, and what is actually a schedule.


There certainly are some autistic people who stick to the clock, having a set mealtime and a set bedtime as well as other set times that events must happen. This, however, isn't really a routine, it is a schedule. Routines don't need to be time-bound or linked to the clock, or even a particular day (and eating certain meals on certain days isn't necessarily an autistic thing, my family and the various branches of it always have spaghetti on a Friday night because it's tradition). The lazy stereotyping of Sheldon Cooper as a schedule driven autistic person hasn't helped our cause.


The way I do the washing up, and its placement in the drying rack is a routine, and I do get distressed when it's not followed. I have stopped guests from washing up for me because I know they won't wash things in the right order, and it will not be stacked properly, and that impacts on how I put the clean stuff away.


My morning routine is just that – a routine. It doesn't matter what time I actually get up, I always do the same things in the same order and the browser tabs must be in the correct order. This doesn't fit the preconceived notion of what an autistic routine looks like and people struggle to understand why a (non self-imposed) inability to complete the routine can leave me off centre for the whole day. It has nothing to do with the time the routine is started, nor how long it takes )unless we measure this in terms of tea intake, because it always takes 2 cups of tea.).


My morning routine hasn't been the same for my entire life, it has changed and developed over the years and it will continue to change and develop. It currently has a coda (Wordle and The Guardian crossword) that can be done later in the day if there isn't enough time to do both these puzzles on top of my other morning ones. I can defer these in exceptional circumstances. This sort of flexibility isn't what people think of when they think of autistic people and routine. What is overlooked is the fact that it is more a case of managing our baseline stress levels (which are higher than for non-autistic people) by controlling and managing our activities and environment.

When we are struggling or overwhelmed the answer is not to impose (more of) a schedule on our lives, or try to shoebox our lives into neat windows – we don't necessarily need an itinerary off which to run our lives, although there are autistic people for whom this approach is helpful as it can reduce anxiety about what happens and when.


The thing is, autistic people are all different from each other so there are a significant number of us for whom having to fit into a strict schedule will create more anxiety, especially around what happens when an unexpected event throws that strict schedule off course. Many of us lead independent lives and we benefit from having the agency to choose our routines and to set the rigidity of any schedule we may choose to follow. Many of us have traits of ADD, ADHD, and demand avoidance which makes following a “routine” as others may define it impossible. Allowing us to set our own routines, and giving us the space to complete these routines is key to maintaining equilibrium.

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