Why do Autistic people have trouble with change in routine?

Why are Autistic people often averse to change?

Let’s start at the very start… Autistics are human beings and human beings generally have a hard time dealing with change. But Autistic people often have a bigger reaction to change or what the outside observer may consider “small” changes or transitions.

So why does my response look different to yours? 

Let’s say a person goes for a walk. They wear their pants with loose pockets and end up losing a €20 note on this walk. How does this person react?

We often expect the person to react in the same way we would, but what if that person is not us and chances are they won’t be!!

That person may have a different response because they experience that loss differently to us. They have a different way of coming to meet that experience and a lot is dependent on their previous experience. 

So let’s say that person can’t afford to lose €20- will their reaction be different to yours if you’re someone who can afford to lose €20? Well yes- we’d expect two very different responses because we can kind of empathise. Even if we are in the privileged position to be able to afford to lose €20 we can empathise by imagining what it would be like for us to loose €200 or €2,000. 

When we draw a comparison like that we can start to see how much this loss impacts the other person and we can understand their reaction and why it looks so different to ours. 

It matters more because it means more to them- the impact on them is greater. Maybe losing that €20 means they won’t eat for a few days, maybe it means they can’t take public transport for the week, maybe it means they’ll be late for work, maybe it means that their kids won’t have money for their school tour. The implications and chain reactions from the same event are very different depending on circumstance and depending on how much impact that event will have on the person. 

On the outside it looks like the same loss, they both lost €20 but in real terms, in terms of impact then those losses are very different. 

So let’s apply some of this thinking to how Autistic people’s responses might look different to yours and help you to understand why. 

Let’s say the Autistic person you know has a really really big reaction when there’s a small change to their routine. To you it looks like a small thing. To them it can be catastrophic.  But why? Because Autistic people can’t cope with change? Because autism causes a love for routine (still waiting for the experts to explain that one!) No, but because routine is important to human beings. Change is hard for human beings to deal with at times and the more anxious a person is then the more important their routine becomes. 

Learn more about Autistic people and anxiety here

Why does their routine become more and more important? Well first we need to understand what routine is and what function it plays for that person. And then we need to look at the chain of events that come from that change and how they impact that person. 

So routine is when we do something in a usual way repeatedly. As humans we have many routines. We go to school, get a job, maybe have a family and die.. .our lives are pretty routine. We brush our teeth routinely, we exercise routinely, we eat food deemed “breakfast foods”- a rigid way of treating food but it’s become part of our routine. By and large, we go to the same school for years, for our entire education- we don’t go to a new school whenever we feel like it. We do our shopping once a week, we write a list for that shopping, we get up around the same time each day, we work in shifts, we have weekends, we observe our seasons and have traditions… all of these are routines. 

Of course some of us may routinely not brush our teeth or not exercise routinely. Either way we’re all following routines and rituals. It’s a very human thing. And Autistics too are human and do human things in human ways. 

Human beings love routine. A disruption to a routine can be like that twenty quid I mentioned earlier. It can feel like a loss. It can impact some of us more than others. As humans we like life to be predictable and we go out of our way to make it so in many instances. If life wasn’t predictable then insurance companies wouldn’t exist because they can predict that they’ll make money because they know life really is predictable but profit of our fear that it isn’t. 

So let’s say the change in routine appears small to you but you get a huge response or reaction from the Autistic person in your life. Well that’s because what looks like a small change to you is massive to them. It’s massive because their routine makes them feel safe, because they’re anxious and because routine and predictability are important ways to manage anxiety.

If we’re anxious we could be living and operating at stress level 7 or 8 whereas people who rarely feel anxious might operate around 2. So when we’re under such high stress levels we know, we know very well that we don’t really have that far left to go before we reach 10. What happens when we reach 10? System in crisis, a big reaction ,all loss of control and a system meltdown or shutdown. 

When we experience high levels of stress and anxiety then our minds don’t always work with us in helpful ways. Because our minds are programmed to keep us safe that is what our minds do. 

We can support someone in a few ways. We can try to make life as predictable as possible, we can plan and we can give lots of advance notice and we can also look to resolve the underlying causes of anxiety. Routine changes are not the cause of the anxiety but rather an opportunity for the anxiety to express itself. By understanding it this way we can really start to get to the real causes of anxiety for Autistic people

Learn more about Autistic people and behaviour here

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