My favorite cereal bowl is blue. I got it from Target, and it is the perfect size to eat my favorite cereal for breakfast. Which is Honey Nut Cheerios, in case you were wondering. There is something very safe about my bowl. I use it at the exact same time, in the exact same place, in the exact same way, every time. Because of this, my bowl is safe. It follows the same rules every time. But this is a temporary safety. Bowls break. So then what happens?
Autistic people often have a need for sameness, which shows up as a need for routines, inflexibility, and have rigid rules; like my cereal bowl rule. These things can be both a blessing and a curse. When sameness is adhered to, everything is great! Knowing exactly what’s going to happen takes a great deal of stress off my day. The more things that I can automate with rules and routines, the more energy I have to get through things that might be new or unpredictable. This lessening of stress also makes it easier to handle any sensory issues I might encounter.
Let’s walk through a morning with me. I don’t know about you, but most mornings I’m pretty groggy. Luckily, I have a morning routine. It’s simple, and it looks something like this: get out of bed-bathroom-kitchen routine. Hopefully, by then, I’m awake. By condensing my morning routine into rules, I can get through it without too much mental energy. Which is good, because without it, I have to try and conquer this pre-coffee:get out of bed-bathroom-walk to kitchen-find a bowl. Or a plate. Or both?-what am I eating again?-THIS ISN’T MY CHEERIOS BOWL-I meant to get a spoon, this is a fork-Eat. Finally.-Does this go in the dishwasher?… I missed the dishwasher…it’s broken…Quite a difference, right?
The creation of rules is full of strange phenomena. I very rarely have any control over the process, which can be frustrating. Having to trust my brain to make rules that are functional for me, well, you know how irrational brains can be, right? Even if I don’t have much of a choice in what becomes a rule and what doesn’t, there are predictors, which keep me from being blindsided when a new rule shows up. One of my biggest predictors is stress. If I’m experiencing a lot of stress, one of the ways my brain tries to deal with that stress by attempting to simplify my life. Like my breakfast routine from earlier made my morning more streamlined, my stressed out brain tries to use that same technique on other situations. This usually leaves me with some fairly straightforward rules. Which is more than I can say for some other rule-making processes.
Enter in patterns. My brain, like a lot of autistic people’s brains, is wired to see patterns. Everywhere. Whether we want to or not. Don’t get me wrong, it can be useful. It makes some people good at math, it helps people make beautiful art, and it even helps me sometimes. For example, I like to knit complex lace, and being able to see the symmetry in the pattern makes the whole thing faster and more enjoyable. So, while patterns aren’t good or evil, when it comes to rules, patterns make thing more unpredictable. Because when my brain makes a rule based on a pattern? Anything goes. Did I wear the same sweatshirt to church two weeks in a row? Now that’s a church only sweatshirt. Maybe I ate lunch at the same time for a whole week. Great! Now I can only eat lunch at that time. Forever. I’ve gotten pretty good at knowing when something is entering into rule territory. There’s this niggling feeling that if I’m not careful, I’m going to end up with another blue cereal bowl. And what I’ve resorted to is selectively letting rules pass. I prevent the problematic rules from forming (when I can) and trying to make the best of the ones that are left. But really, why do I even put up with this? My life would be less restrictive if I was a rebel rule breaker.
So I mentioned sameness earlier, which is a nice way of saying that I don’t do well when things aren’t as they’re supposed to be. According to my brain. And my brain is very black and white about things. They are either Same (rule complying), or Not. I use the word rule to indicate a situation that feels ‘right’, and when situations aren’t ‘right’, I become distressed pretty quickly. Here I am, a perfectly normal person, having a perfectly normal day, and suddenly something unexpected happens. Everything is suddenly Wrong. Confusing. My brain is swirling and the only thoughts I can pick out are the ones telling me that if I can get back on my routine, if I make things the same, then it can be ok again. So say my bowl gets broken. Worst case scenario. My morning routine is broken. And unless I can replace my bowl, every morning routine until I find a new bowl is also broken. Luckily, I have enough life experience now to have a backup bowl. Backup everything. Autism Rule #42: Always Back Up Your Life.