Routine...is a change as good as a rest?

Two cliches for the price of one in the title: aspies are meant to adore routine, but also, we all need change, don't we?


I used to think this particular aspie cliche had nothing to do with me. I can be as random as anything, flitting about, getting in my own way, no order within my chaos. In the period of my life where I started working from home and my boys were home-educated, there seemed even less need for any kind of routine.

We didn't need to get up for work or school (bliss!), matching socks, or even any socks, were not required, commitments outside the home were under my control so I could arrange them around us instead of the other way around; everything was free and easy. Or so I thought.

Looking back, with the greater self-knowledge of these heady days, I see I was as wedged into a routine as I could possibly be. Our days followed the same basic pattern of getting up late, going to bed late, computer games, TV, following our own interests (we were home educating autonomously), taking the dog for her walks.

Even our meals followed a pattern. I thought we just ate when  we were hungry. This is laughable as we were hungry at the same times each day! I never noticed the time, except that we ate all our meals later than normal people. It never occurred to me that we were as fixed in our routine as a family working to fit around full-time jobs and school.

So, I guess this whole routine business is fundamental after all, even when we don't notice it at first. Does that mean it's an aspie trait though?

Yes, I admit it, I will stand up and be counted: I have come to see routine as a dogged friend to the aspie, one I cannot escape, always faithful, never exciting but without whom, life would seem more irritating, more stressful, less secure.

I am still random, especially in my approach to being organised and thinking things through. But this does not mean I don't love routine. The image of routine for the aspie can be quite different from non-aspie imaginings.

For a non-aspie, routine might be having a set menu for the week (I was amazed out of my brain to find people actually do this), so the Tuesday routine might be steak and onion pie, never to be had on Thursdays. They might get up at a certain time, go out the door to work at a certain time. They have their shirts ready to wear in the wardrobe, they always put the washing machine on as they leave the house. And so on.

The non-aspie measure of routine seems to be inextricably linked to being organised. Now let's look at the aspie version.

Well, the word is definitely random again. Random and routine? Yes, I'm afraid so, because what seems random to you is blessed routine to us.

It often comes down to the little things with aspie routine. I mean, making sure you have clothes to wear is quite a big thing, whereas hanging your clothes in a certain order on the line is a very little thing - and affects nothing except the OCD side of my aspie mind.

Having a set menu can be a blessing, I'm sure, but to me it's more important for the mashed potato to be in a neat mound on the plate and for the sweetcorn to be in a nice shape next to it.

Getting a parking space is very important, but so is driving around until you don't have to park next to a blue car, or, so much better, finding a green one to shuffle in alongside.

A lot of these are coming across as obsessive, and they are! Routine itself, in any form, is quite obssessive, as it requires an amount of concentration to make it happen. If I concentrated as much on getting the washing done as in not putting the wrong things in the machine together, then I wouldn't have a permanent pile of clothes waiting to be cleaned.


The thing is, that pile of clothes and, by extension, the whole gamut of housework, is enormous. It's like a great, heaving thing I have to live with every day. Like the sleeping dragon, I tip-toe around, trying not to wake it as I know I'm not strong enough to fight it and defeat it.

Instead, I snip off the little bits that I can control, that don't scare me so much. If I do a job, a real, actual, human-person job, like washing clothes, I get a little jolt of being in the wrong place (I expect this is true of many a housework-hater, mind you). To help myself over that frisson of fear, I put in place the little routines, the tiny controls that make the bigger job easier to cope with.

I'm sure my need to be next to a green car in the car park stems from the anxiety of coming out to do my errands for the day. That little bit of control in the car park makes me happy and I feel better when I leave the car. It shouldn't matter where I park, but it does,

In a bigger way, routine helps me work. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, I have to do all my other things on the computer first (games, email, Facebook), before I can do any blogging or writing. This is a routine I tried to fight, until I recognised that it had a valid benefit of settling my mind to the task in hand.

And there we are, reader, the secret to every infuriating moment when you've been stood in front of your aspie, this immovable rock of resolution, demanding to know, Why it isn't right? What do you need to do first? What's wrong with the way it is? There are many questions you ask, but they all mean the same thing:

Why does it have to be done this way?

It has to be done this way, because this is the way that makes it easier for us. It settles the mind, which settles the emotions and makes us able to lift and turn our faces to see what comes next. This thing, this unimportant, radically random thing, which affects nothing in the grand scheme of life - it affects us and we feel that we affect it. This thing helps us to do the other things, and that's why it must be done this way.

I've listed my own routines on here, not to emphasise how exasperating I must be to live with (or travel round car parks with), but to show how very personal our routines can be. In our minds, everyone does things a certain way. Everyone else, that is. In my own mind, everyone else manages housework better than me, often perfectly. I know other people park wherever they like. I know they wash anything and everything together because colours don't mix anymore and soap powder kills all germs, even on a cold wash.

So, when I follow my odd little routines, I know I'm doing my own thing, but that's still not why I do it. I don't do it to be different, I do it because the methods that seem to work so seamlessly for everyone else, don't work for me. They don't help me, they don't make me feel better. Doing it my own way does work and I do feel better.

Other aspies will have their own routines, some borderline OCD, some seemingly mad in their methods, some over the wall and living happily in the garden of obsessive compulsive. Other aspies will differ in their reactions to the breaking of their routines, but we all react for the same reasons.

Our routines are there, like our obsessions, as things which we understand and can control. They are not always our friends, like the obsessions are, but they are familiar and manageable.

Lots of things in this world are unfamiliar and frightening. If possible, let us have our small routines, but don't be afraid of showing us how the bigger ones can be managed as well. If we're open to it, do show us how to cope with things. Break it down, make it look more like our little routines. Tell us how it makes you feel better to do a certain thing, so we don't feel you're just lecturing us again.

Build a path of common interest and we may be able to follow you into fuller routines, that make ordinary life more manageable. If we don't, or can't, then understand our reasons for doing things our own way and respect them, as much as you can.

We have probably never told you it was a bad idea to have the same meal every Tuesday night, so don't fret too much if we can only eat chips and egg when it's laid out like the sun over the meadow. We all need different routines, but they matter to us equally, whatever they are.

Amanda

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