How to get Better at Managing Unexpected Changes to Routine

Unexpected change is probably my biggest trigger. Depending on what the change is it can cause severe anxiety, stress, panic, not knowing what to do (decision issues), anger (which can occasionally turn into rage) or a meltdown (such as crying). As you can imagine, with such extreme consequences, I need to do everything possible to avoid this from happening.

Examples of unexpected change and the emotions they cause

As my life is so preplanned and pre-organised there are not many recent examples of extreme change but a few recent and older examples are below:

Transitions – This is something that causes me extreme anxiety and stress. Examples are moving school (from primary to secondary which was almost crippling for me), starting college, starting university, starting a new job or moving home. All of these changes caused me massive anxiety where the stress would build up for a number of weeks before the start of the change. I tend to be constantly thinking and worrying about the situation which increases this anxiety. After a week I get settled in enough for the stress and anxiety to ease a little but then if I have a weekend off I get stressed or anxious about restarting on the Monday (this never really goes away for me but gets easier once I am fully settled). I find that it takes me one full year to get settled in and fully comfortable with a new place (this rule still applies even at my age of 35). Before I knew I was autistic I found that this time was needed for me to get used to other people but more importantly for other people to get used to, and feel comfortable, around me (which in turn helps me to fit in better).

Even though transitions are stressful there are many things that can ease the initial anxiety. One thing is to visit or a least drive to the new place I will be studying or working at. By simply knowing the layout of places and how different areas are connected (like mapping it in my mind) it helps to calm me down a bit. By driving to the new place, at a similar time to when I would start work, or study I knew what the traffic and parking will be like. This takes a lot of stress out of the first few starting days. In addition hours of research on the computer also helps to reduce the anxiety by looking at where different sites are and how to get to them using websites like Google Maps, finding information about staff names and looking back at job specifications to get an idea of what is expected of me. In addition If I know someone well who studies or works at a new place I will be working I will ask them questions about my biggest worries (for example I have worked at two places where my sister was already working so I could ask her loads of questions which was invaluable and I got my first job at a place my cousin worked at). This concrete knowledge stops me from overthinking about things I am unsure about.

Change in plans – this could be anything that I thought was going to happen but then gets changed at the spare of the moment. This is especially difficult if I could not have predicted this change, I had been looking forward to the original plans or I cannot get out of the changes even if I want to. Examples include planning to go out for a takeaway or meal after work then my wife suddenly saying I don’t feel like going out or you go out on your own. In my job there would be times when I was meant to be on one site then I turn up to that site and I am told I need to go to another site (this really threw me and stressed me out a lot, until it happened regularly and I was ready for it happening every day I worked).

I get around this by planning everything to incredible detail. I will make lists, spreadsheets, update my calendar, keep a diary and talk to my family so I know their plans. I also plan (or think about) what could go wrong or what possible changes might occur for everything I do. A lot of this is learnt from experience so know I can usually predict changes before they happen and think about how I will cope with these changes if they do happen. Not many things happen without me predicting it first but sometimes things do catch me out, and almost knock me off my feet, but I manage to get through them somehow.

Small things – even the smallest changes can cause the biggest upsets. Such as my wife not buying an item on a shopping list or even worse buying an alternative to what I requested. So I get around this by sending her pictures of what I want or explaining things to her before she leaves so she gets it right. As the internet has moved along so quickly these past couple of years, I can view every item in the three supermarkets we shop in, its price and every offer available without even going into the shop. It’s amazing and useful but very time consuming.

Another small change is when my weekly routine changes for reasons such as having a week off work, being ill so needing a day of work (which is rare as I normally go to work when I’m ill) or my wife’s working days changing. Although it is small I find these things to be very difficult. It helps a lot if I am told beforehand about it so I can prepare, but even then I find it difficult. It is especially hard when I have time off work for holiday leave and then have to get back into the working routine again or when I start work again in September and I have to get used to a new timetable, new students and sometimes new colleagues.

Even though changes are difficult, cause severe anxiety and are very challenging (as they can be for people without autism sometimes) I have to force myself to accept them. I now know that changes are usually required to improve myself or move forward with my life and the discomfort they cause is usually worth the benefit they provide. For example one of my hardest changes was leaving work when I was 21 to start university. I had to go from earning a quite good wage to having a very small income. I also had to leave people who I had got to know and go into a massive place where I did not know anybody, could not communicate very well, and found it difficult to socialise and make friends. I managed to get through this and did well at university so it was worth it. Unfortunately I did not get a brilliant job at the end of it all, in terms of salary and using the knowledge I learnt, but I still see university as one of the most worthwhile things I did in my whole life for other reasons such as: learning to communicate better, improving decision making, learning to teach and help others (such as my children, family and students at work), fitting in with others better, learning how to study and self teach, learning to plan (which I use every day and it helps me to be more independent), improving my confidence and at least having the opportunity to learn more about the subject that I enjoyed and was good at which is computing.

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