Routine Changes And How It Links To Anxiety And Autism
This time of year has the potential to raise the anxiety levels for all neurotypes, but when you’re autistic you have to consider the changes in routine, us autistic folk like some form of structure to our days, some people need really strict routines and structure and any deviation from this can cause anxiety, meltdowns, shutdowns and generally unpleasant side effects. It can also cause confusion for those around us.
The degree of structure varies wildly, for myself I am happy to get my work and tasks done at any time in the day. If however I make plans and they change that is something I struggle to adapt too, I have over the years learnt to take these changes with much more grace, I think this is partly due to my constant workload. There’s always something to focus on and if the energy isn’t there – I’m now at a point where I hit the brakes and give myself full permission to chill out.
Having down time is so essential for our health, but through my experience and the experiences of others I have come to realise that stopping my predictable working routine really derails me, it takes me several days to slip into holiday mode and then when I return to work it takes me time to get back into work mode. This is the same for our children and young adults, whether the routine is one of school, college, university, work or something totally different – stopping is hard work and it causes high levels of anxiety.
When I was younger I didn’t realise that this was happening and I would “happily” go from work to holiday on the same day, even going to a physical holiday destination straight after work, the inevitable mood dip would quickly follow, it left me feeling nervous and full of anxiety. I didn’t fully understand it, so when people asked me what the matter was I didn’t have the words to explain it. I’m feeling very anxious because I’ve stopped working and now need time to transition into holiday mode, wasn’t an answer that was ever going to come to me, but I understand this now and there are things that you can do to help ease the transition for yourself or your autistic loved one.
Knowing that this is a transition period and one that will happen every time your routine significantly changes will help in the long term, being kind to yourself and knowing that the first day or two of your break will feel odd will also help. So keep those first few days quiet if you can, take the time to relax and decompress and do the things that make your soul sing. Scrolling through social media or playing video games is a totally valid way to spend your time, if it relaxes you then do it, other people’s opinions are just that, an opinion, everyone has one, it doesn’t mean that they should share it.
A great tip that has helped a lot of people I’ve worked with, is to think about the things you enjoy about the different routine, I’ll use a real life example from a teenager I worked with earlier this year. Like many autistics she struggled with the change from school mode, to home mode, to holiday mode, back to home mode, then to school (we also had covid, lockdowns and school closing to year groups without warning) these are a lot of changes to adapt too.
Things really changed for this person when we looked at what she enjoyed from each of her experiences. So what was the benefit of not being at school? Her answer was sleep and the ability to eat crisps whenever she liked. What’s the benefit of going on holiday? Seeing friends and being able to enjoy nature which she didn’t feel able to do at home. What’s the benefit of going home? Getting back to her own bed and not having a small caravan bed to fall down the side of, the smell of home and the comfort it provides. We explored what it was about school that she was looking forward too, this was the social aspect and being with friends. This conversation alone shows us that each transition had a benefit for this person and each of your transitions will usually have a benefit for you too, if there really is no benefit then it’s time to question why you’re in that environment in the first place, parents can your child have an alternative education? Adults can you change career or finally start your own enterprise?
If you’d like help with transitions and anxiety this is something Harper and I cover in our coaching, you can book yourself in for a 15 minute chat to see if coaching is the right choice for you at the moment.