This post continues my reflections on the diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder from DSM V and how they relate to my own life. The second criterion in section B describes a need for routine and sameness.
“Insistence on sameness, excessive adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns of verbal or nonverbal behavior.“
This criterion was difficult for me to initially perceive in myself. In fact, I had this self-image of myself as highly flexible, adaptable, and able to function even as everything around me descends into chaos. But as I read descriptions and examples of this criteria, I specifically remembered the reason for my earliest visits with a psychiatrist.
I only vaguely recall the details. I know I was four or five years old. But I remember some of it and my mother has talked about it over the years. Around that age, I developed an extreme insistence on sameness in my room. Everything had to be in exactly the right spot. If anyone moved anything at all out of place, I would immediately notice when I entered my room. And I would have a complete screaming, on the floor meltdown. My reaction was so extreme, my mother took me to see a psychiatrist. They were able to work with me and through a process of very slowly introducing very slight changes, were able to help me to learn to tolerate changes without such an extreme reaction.
My childhood was a pretty chaotic one by most typical standards. At least, that’s what everyone usually tells me when they learn some of the details. It’s the only childhood I had, so it’s a bit difficult for me to judge. And I weathered the storm. In fact, I appear to have been less impacted by my experiences than many other people would have been.
But when I really examine my life and peel back the layers, there’s much less flexibility and resilience than shows on the surface. Instead, I insulated myself by developing what I’ll call “micro-routines” and following them pretty rigidly. By making the routines smaller, I could shuffle the sequence or timing and manage macro-scale disorder. So I had a particular routine to get ready for bed. I had a routine for emptying my pockets and a place for everything when I did. Instead of having a single route from start to destination once I could walk or ride a bike to different places, I would have smaller routes to get from one point to another point. So I could appear to be flexible about the route I took from start to destination. But really it was a sequence of smaller routes for me and I remember following those pretty strictly, even down to which side of the street or even the specific path I used for particular stretches.
If left to my own devices, I will still tend to eat the same food for breakfast, for instance, for long stretches of time. I tend to do things in a particular way and can push back against attempts to change it.
And when I reflect on interactions with my family and children, I realize that some of that rigidness has always been evident to them. I can’t count the number of times they’ve told me when going to an amusement park, shopping, or some event that we were just going to relax and go with the flow rather than follow a schedule. I always thought it was a strange thing to say since I considered myself flexible and easy-going. Apparently that has always been less true than I hoped and they knew it even if I didn’t.
I realize I don’t do things without a plan. Instead, I handle variability by developing multiple plans in advance. I develop variations within the context of an overarching plan. So, for instance, rather than a strict schedule at a theme park, I’ll start with the boundary plan. Here’s when we need to leave to get there. And this is roughly when we’ll plan to leave (which might be bounded by a dinner reservation). Then within that context, I’ll break the day up into segments and have alternative plans for each segment based on what everyone feels like doing. Most of the time, when they decide, I have a version of a plan I can swap in and use. And I’m always looking at where we are, the schedule of events, and proposing different variations for people to choose between.
That process of micro-routines and plans within plans allows me to manage the variability of life pretty well, I think. Even so, there are times when life lobs a hand grenade that can’t be planned or managed. When those occur, my approach completely changes. A couple of years ago, in the aftermath of my father’s heart attack, I was discussing my experience with my oldest daughter. When a true crisis hits, my perception of the world around me switches gears. Everything almost seems to slow down as I process and analyze what’s happening. My focus narrows at the same time as I assess the situation and determine the immediate action I need to take. I do that. And then I work out the specific thing I need to do next. And I do that. I keep stepping through each subsequent, specific task or action until the weight of the crisis begins to lift.
My emotional response during the crisis also recedes even further than what’s normal for me. I’m generally aware that the emotions are present and will likely erupt at some point in the future, but during the crisis I almost completely disconnect from them. I now know that’s related to alexithymia. I typically have to work hard to understand what I’m feeling, so it’s comparatively easy to switch that off during a crisis so the emotions do not paralyze or confuse me. It’s probably one of the few times I would consider alexithymia an actual benefit, though my lack of emotional response and affect in a crisis does tend to confuse others.
So I do have a clear childhood history that meets this criterion at a level of severity that impacted my ability to function and required intervention. Since then, although my level of rigidity and need for some sort of plan and routine is apparently more evident to those close to me than I imagined or even admitted to myself, my coping mechanisms seem to be good enough that there’s no significant negative impact in my daily functioning. The ASD criteria guidelines encompass both childhood history and current functioning. So I think I do pretty clearly meet this criterion even though it’s less evident than the other ones.