Autism and Managing Changes to Routine and How to Deal with Big Life Events

Introduction

As Autistics/Aspies we love routines and structure.  We hate it when changes or unexpected events happen.  Our lives feel better when they’re predictable, and we find great comfort in being able to plan our actions beforehand.

A famous study was conducted by Favre et al. (2015) where rats were experimented on.  They were drugged, to give them autistic characteristics.  Then tested in different environments, to see their reactions.  The scientists made unpredictable changes to one of the cages, such as moving objects after cleaning it.  Afterwards, the rats experienced negative emotions such as anxiety and fear.  Whereas, the rats in the environment with the regular and predictable routine, were perfectly happy.  This demonstrates just how important routine is to prevent us from having these adverse feelings.

Unexpected change causes negative emotions. Depending on the type of change and the severity, it can cause:

  • Extreme anxiety
  • Stress
  • Panic or fear
  • Indecisiveness
  • Anger
  • Meltdown (such as crying)

Unexpected Changes to Plans and Routines

Being autistic/aspie will often mean you spend most of your time organising your life, in one way or another.  You will not only plan for the best outcomes, but also think about contingences.  So you’re extra prepared for events that don’t go to plan.  But even with the most meticulous planning in the world, things will occasionally happen unexpectantly.  The world is a complicated place and people (even close family), behave in unpredictable ways.

There are hundreds of ways in which routines and plans can be changed, that you’re not expecting.  A few examples include:

  • Being asked to work on your day off.
  • Working on a different site to normal.
  • Your best friend being ill, when you normally spend time with them at school or work.
  • Meals being changed.
  • Food items not being in stock when doing the weekly shop.
  • Partner or children being poorly.
  • Being late due to traffic problems.

It is always best to have a back-up plan if possible.  If the people you live with are understanding of your autism/Aspergers, they will help you as much as they can.  Such as letting you know of changes in advance, and keeping family calendars up-to-date.

If there is an unexpected change to your routine, it is important to stay calm and don’t worry too much.  You might feel like your world is falling apart, but you will get through it.  Most of these events seem incredibly stressful to us, but will be forgotten about by everyone involved after a few days.  I find writing a diary helps me to realise how insignificant some of these changes are.  This helps me to cope with future changes a bit better.

Big Life Events

The changes, that have the most extreme impact for autistic/aspies, are big life events.

Big life events include: having children, changing schools, starting a new job, getting married or buying a house.  These events are tough and stressful for everyone.  But can be even more extreme, for people with autism/Aspergers.  Causing prolonged anxiety and stress, which can even lead to depression.  The lead up to the change can often be the hardest part, and can cause negative emotions several months beforehand.

Starting a New Job, School or University

When starting a new job, school or university, it takes me a full year to get settled.  Over this first year, I will be stressed and anxious every weekend.  Constantly thinking about going back on the Monday.  Because of this, I can never truly rest, so there is a build-up of pressure lasting weeks at a time.  This is only reduced when I get a week or two off.  Because I’m autistic/aspie, it also takes about a year for other people to get used to me, and my differences.  Even though I try my best to fit in, and get along with everyone.

Although starting a new job, school or university is stressful there are many things that can ease the initial anxiety.  Such as:

  • Visiting or driving there, the week before your starting day. Which helps to make the first day easier and less stressful.
    • By visiting you can learn the layout of the building, and where essential areas are, such as the reception and toilets. It also helps you to feel relaxed, in that environment without any pressure.
    • Driving at the same time you plan to leave for your first day. You will then know how long it will take, with the increased traffic, and if parking is available.
  • Research the company. Using their own website.  Plus websites like LinkedIn.com will show you many of their employees and their current roles and responsibilities.  So it’s an excellent way to learn a few names.
  • Wash and iron you first day clothes in plenty of time. Then try them on, to check the fit, comfort and style.  It will give you time to get alternatives ready if they’re required, or even buy new clothes.  Plus it mentally prepares you for that first day, when you will see yourself differently.
  • Getting a good nights sleep, by turning off all gadgets early in the evening, so that you’re not distracted.
  • If you know someone who works there, don’t be afraid to ask them questions. Answers to the simplest of worries can help to settle your nerves.

Having Children

Having your first child is such a drastic life changing event, that it completely alters your life.  So much so that you forget how your life used to be.  There are so many good sides to being a parent, and having a young one, that they greatly outweigh the relatively minor hardships.  Having and nurturing children is, in my opinion, the whole purpose of life.  But there will be changes.  A few of these are below:

  • Sleeping much less, as babies need to be fed at regular intervals over 24 hours. Plus babies tend to wake and cry a lot in the night so need settling.
  • Your new routine will be based around your son/daughter. When he/she needs to be fed, changed, rested.
  • It is more tiring than anything you have ever done before. Being a parent is truly 365 days a year, 24 hours a day.  It’s the best thing in the world, but it takes a long time to get used to the immense level or responsibility.
  • Life will revolve around your child (which is the way it should be). So many things will alter such as: priorities, finances and how you spend your free time (like the places you visit and vacations).
  • Many things will take much longer. Such as a quick visit to the shop will mean getting your young one ready first.  Which includes:
    • Making sure they have had a feed
    • Putting on a fresh nappy/diaper and clean clothes
    • Having a bag of equipment and food ready (just in case)
    • Getting the pushchair/stroller ready with your baby securely strapped and comfortable (with a blanket etc if need).
  • Putting someone else’s needs before your own and your partner’s.

Buying a House

Being autistic/aspie means we struggle to make some of the most basic decisions.  So when it comes to the most important purchase of our lives, getting it right is vital.  We all probably need help to narrow down the options, and come to a final decision.  If you’re buying with a partner, this help will be readily available.  But if you’re buying alone, consider asking a parent or friend to help you choose.

Although moving house is a very stressful and tiresome experience it’s a positive experience overall.  You are finally achieving a life-long ambition, and this overshadows the hardships.

Final Thoughts

Changes are difficult, cause severe anxiety and are very challenging.  For the most part, we need routine and as little change as possible.  Although there is comfort in the regular routine, sometimes change is required.

All of those big life events like having children, starting a new job, going to university and buying a house, require changes.  Many of these are vital to living a healthy and fulfilled life.  So although change is distressing, there are occasions when we need to be strong and fight through it.  We know change is harder for people like us with autism/Aspergers, so we need to take this into consideration.  It’s always better for us to make one large change, at one point in time.  Then get used to it, before committing to another one.

References

Favre, M. R., La Mendola, D., Meystre, J., Christodoulou, D., Cochrane, M. J. & Markram, H (2015). Predictable enriched environment prevents development of hyper-emotionality in the VPA rat model of autism. Front. Neuroscience. 9, 1–14. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2015.00127.

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