Coping with change

  • Routine, Rules and Rituals; an autistic person’s guide to coping with change

    Rules, Routines and Rituals - Autistic Person's guide to coping with change blog post

    Many autistic people rely on routine and ritual to navigate through their lives. This structure can be comforting and change can be alarming, yet sometimes change is inevitable.

    If it ain’t broke…

    Why does an autistic person make a bad cashier? Because they can’t handle change. It’s an old joke imbued in the stereotypes we see cross our screens in all sorts of autistic-coded characters. Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang Theory refuses to move from his spot on the couch, and many an autistic child from a big action movie struggles with a change (a divorce, or moving city) until the life-altering events of the movie help to give them some perspective and “cure” them of this issue.

    This is a stereotype based in truth. It is a known trait that some autistic people rely on routine and structure, and struggle to cope with change. There is a safety in repetition which many autistic people find comforting, and thus can grow attached to a particular routine. In our house growing up we had many such “traditions” from the little things, such as always stopping at the same shop to get a chocolate bar on the way home from karate, to the large events like Christmas which had to hold the same structure every year without fail. Any unplanned deviation from these routines can result in a range of negative emotions from discomfort to a meltdown.

    We construct these routines for comfort and control, and for many they are an incredibly important part of how things are done


    Autistic people can use routine to try and control and navigate what can be a very confusing world. This control can manifest in a myriad of ways. Some people use timetables to structure their every day, while others repeat meals over and over without getting bored. I for one use the same bowl and fork for every meal. This behaviour can be compulsive, and some people have noted a crossover in autism and OCD due to the nature of these rituals. A diagnosis of one does not necessarily mean the presence of the other, even if common behaviours can be found between the two.

    These routines can become so commonplace we don’t even notice them until they are disrupted. For example, every time I cycle home I avoid the same speed bump by swerving left to the small gap between where the speed bump ends and the pavement begins, followed by aiming for the small groove in the centre of the next speed bump. Then, I lean my bike up at the same spot against the wall, and lock it up. I didn’t realise the importance of this exact journey until someone had left a wheelie bin in my route, and every time there is an obstruction to this routine I feel suddenly and inexplicably furious until I can move the obstacle and continue as normal.

    We construct these routines for comfort and control, and for many they are an incredibly important part of how things are done. Many autistic people have strong feelings about the “right” way something should be done, and for many this is more than an inclination, it is a must.

    Doing it the “right” way

    While routines will often just affect ourselves, the preference for things being done the “right” way can affect those around us. Autistic people can often grow attached to a particular method of doing things, and in many situations all other ways are just plain wrong. 

    I find this manifests itself the most for me when playing card games. If someone knows the same game as me but with slightly different rules, I struggle to articulate the importance that the game be played my way. What may be a small insignificant detail to come is incredibly important to me, and I worry that people won’t understand my upset if things don’t go my way. Yes, it does seem ridiculous that I would cry and quit a card game because people don’t want to play with my rules, however I simply could not handle playing it any other way. 

    This intolerance for others’ rules stretches to rule breaking. Many autistic people have their strong opinions on doing things the “right” way, which often extends to rule-breaking. For many, rule-breaking is more than intolerable. It is simply wrong. And if you aren’t going to bother doing things right, why do them at all?

    Coping strategies

    Change can be scary, and overwhelming, but it is often inevitable. Even exciting and typically positive changes, such as having a baby, can include aspects which are more difficult to adapt to. This isn’t exclusive to autistic children; adults can also struggle to deal with changes in their lives, though they may be expected to react “rationally” (people are typically more understanding with children’s meltdowns which can be dismissed by age). To manage changes, autistic people rely heavily on focusing beyond the change itself, to preparation and delivery of the change.

    There are some coping strategies to help autistic people deal with change. Preparation is key. With advance notice, autistic people can try and control the finer details of the change itself which may not be controllable. For example if the location of your dinner has to be rearranged last minute, finding a copy of the menu for the new place would allow someone to be familiar with the menu on arrival. Organising these mitigating factors can help an autistic person to feel more control, and therefore less discomforted by the change.

    Phasing between changes can also be incredibly comforting. I knew I wouldn’t live with my siblings forever and eventually our Christmas routine would have to change. The first year my sister moved out, she came to our house first thing Christmas morning; it was as if she hadn’t even moved. Then every year she arrived later and later, until now the routine involves all meeting up for lunch. Pushing it back little by little helped us all adjust to a big change in a very important routine.

    Some autistic people may struggle to cope with change,but it’s not impossible. Preparation, phasing and clear communication of change are all mitigating factors which might help autistic people navigate changes which can feel scary and overwhelming.

    If you find that all the preparation in the world can’t dim that overwhelmed feeling, you’re no less rational for being overwhelmed.

    Feel your feelings

    Ultimately, changes to a routine or rule can be scary and overwhelming, and that’s okay. It’s important for autistic people to feel validated in what can present as a very irrational response to something miniscule. Sometimes mitigating these changes can help autistic people adjust, and sometimes they can’t. If you find that all the preparation in the world can’t dim that overwhelmed feeling, you’re no less rational for being overwhelmed.

    Routines and rules are nothing to be ashamed of. If they help you to feel safe and comforted, if they help you to navigate your way through a world that can feel confusing or formidable, then they should be accepted and celebrated.

    References and Resources