Routines are often seen as important for autistic people. This is true for many of us, but there are dangers to assuming autistic people need routines, without understanding why. Routines imposed by other people are likely to do more harm than good.
Autistic people are of course not the only ones who rely on routines; almost everyone does certain things at certain times, and expects things to happen in a particular order. The biggest difference between autistic and non-autistic people when it comes to routines is probably how we react when those routines are disrupted, so let’s start by looking at why people in general tend to have routines, and then think about why autistic people often react badly when they don’t go according to plan. Finally, we’ll explore some of the dangers of routines, and of people’s assumptions about them.

Routines simplify things

In a world that can feel uncertain and overwhelming, routines give us one less thing to think about. They reduce cognitive load, in other words. We know what’s supposed to happen next; we can prepare for it; we don’t have to make too many decisions, don’t have to weigh up too many factors, don’t have to put in too much mental work. Whatever choices are involved, we probably know what they are ahead of time.
If you have the kind of brain that finds it difficult to keep track of too many things at once (a monotropic thinking style, in other words) it can be particularly comforting to know that you can take a break from having to try, by just falling into a familiar pattern. We get to focus on just one thing, getting through the routine, step by step, seeing it through to completion. Often, the thing we focus on brings us a sense of comfort or satisfaction. Again, this is far from an autistic-only thing — non-autistic people rely on routines all the time, but theirs are likely to be seen as more socially acceptable, and maybe it’s easier for them deal with when they don’t work out.

Shattered expectations

It’s unsettling for anyone when they think they know what to expect, but then things turn out very differently. It feels like having something snatched away, and for autistic people, it can feel like a crisis. We may spend much of our lives in a state of uncertainty about what comes next, so routines can feel like an island of stability in all that. We get to have have a nice, simple model in our heads of what is supposed to happen. The more secure we feel in it, the more we invest in it. Autistic people tend to experience a lot of inertia, so it takes time and effort to get going, or change course: it takes quite a bit of work to get our mental resources lined up, and embark on a course of action.
A disruption to routines means discarding all of our expectations, abruptly changing course, and probably starting from scratch. Autistic inertia makes that deeply uncomfortable: it’s like trying to execute a sharp turn with a heavily laden shopping trolley. I find that parts of me often continue on the old trajectory — like I need to grab onto each of my expectations one by one, and make sure they’re coming with me on the new course, or else I keep expecting things that I know, on a conscious level, are definitely not happening. If the new direction doesn’t entirely make sense to me, that gets very much harder.

Pathological demands

This brings us to the difficulty with imposing routines on autistic people. Sometimes even the routines we try to impose on ourselves can backfire, because they conflict with our need to feel in control, or our drive for novelty. Autistic people are often thought of as rule-followers, and there’s a lot of truth in that, for many of the same reasons we often stick with routines: it helps us to make sense of this unpredictable world, to attain a sense of stability and security. It helps us know what to expect. However, autistic people also tend to have a very limited tolerance for wrongness, and rules or routines which don’t make sense can very much fall into the category of Wrong. We are liable to get frustrated, trying in vain to make them make sense.
Irrational routines and illogical rules do not contribute to a sense of safety. They feel instead like unreasonable demands, eroding our sense of autonomy, especially if they impinge on our time spent pursuing what we are most interested in.
When the world makes you anxious or confused, with all its bizarre social demands and intense sensory stimuli, feeling in control is often the only escape. Sometimes we do that in small ways, like subtly stimming; other times it takes more than that to feel like we are on top of things. Sometimes feeling in control might mean sticking rigidly to routines, but other times it means being able to abandon routines that are not flexible enough to meet our needs. The need for novelty, which seems particularly pronounced in those of us with ADHD tendencies, can make it very difficult for some of us to stick with routines at all. There is often a tension between restlessness and the need for predictability.

Conclusion

Finding routines that work for us might take a bit of experimentation, but hitting the right balance between autonomy and consistency can really lighten our mental loads, and help make sure that we get things done. There is no sense in pursuing routines for routine’s sake, and they don’t necessarily work for all autistic people; but with a bit of insight into why they can help, and when they don’t, they can be a valuable tool to help autistic people — and especially for us to help ourselves.
  • Routines can help reduce cognitive load and promote a feeling of stability.
  • Usually routines only help if they are voluntarily entered into.
  • Routines imposed from outside often make a person feel more anxious.
  • Experimentation, negotiation, and autonomy are key.