Expecting the Unexpected: The Aspie and routine

Autistics don’t like change. Well that’s the theory anyway but again it’s truer of some of us than others. Read on.

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WHEN IT’S OK

“I gave you that part because I heard people with Asperger’s didn’t like change so I gave you one that didn’t have a lot of going on and offstage.” Thus spoke my second year drama tutor. “I wouldn’t have said that about you. because you managed alright with all the entrances and exits in last term’s production.” Thus spoke the assistant tutor when I enquired politely of her whether she was the one who had said this.

Fast forward a few years to a coach trip round America’s East Coast. The tour guide is pleased I’ve told him about my condition on the first day. He does later ask me however “How do you feel though about all the change and having to get up and go to a different place every couple days or so?” And once again a myth needs shattering. I have to explain that I’m absolutely fine with that because it’s in the timetable and I know it’s coming. Besides, if I didn’t like that sort of thing, would I have joined an expedition that had such a clearly outlined itinerary and schedule? No, I explained. The problem really comes (for me anyway) with sudden, unexpected change. Let me give you a for-instance or two:

WHEN IT DOESN’T WORK

Last Christmas (well the period leading up to it) I worked a temporary job in a warehouse that had a contract with Amazon. I managed to find a niche there on ground putaway ie the kind of shelf-stacking that doesn’t entail use of a LLOP or forklift truck and found myself assigned to this most days. Then one Monday I found myself being put instead on Goods Out. This is the stress end of the job with a lot of running around trying to do the tasks well without getting under anybody’s feet – rarely in my life have I been able to manage all three at once. Now all of a sudden it’s chaos…

“Stand that side of the rollers, there’s fewer people there” says kindly regular on the team.

“Actually move over to the other side because that’s where all the stuff coming through now needs to be stacked” says a passing supervisor twenty minutes later. And more like that besides.

Cue Rain Man noises aplenty as I struggle to keep the pace. Eventually I decide to do a bit of quiet stacking and moving at my own pace on the edge of the crowd, my typical coping mechanism in situations like these.

“I can’t have you on outbound if that pace is the best you can manage” says a young foreman passing by. I tell him as politely as possible that I didn’t ask to be put up here anyhow. After all, I think, what’s the point in issuing such a warning since I don’t exactly consider it a treat to work on outbound?

Mercifully I was back on my normal job the following shift. It turned out that the reasoning behind it all was that the preceding Black Friday sale had brought an onslaught of goods over the weekend that now needed dispatching. I doubt I’ll ever work there again – inside information tells me that it’s a lot stricter now – but even if I did, at least I’d be able to mentally prepare myself for the post-Black Friday onslaught and cope better with the ensuing drama. And it confirms to me that my issue is not even so much with unexpected as with unexplained change. Oh yes and I now understand why Steely Dan sang “When Black Friday comes I’m gonna dig myself a hole.”

AN ENCOURAGING MEMORY

Rewind fifteen years. I’m touring with a Christian drama ministry. On this particular tour with this particular team the phrase “swings and roundabouts” has never been more apt. Performance dates that look like they’re going to be really exciting get cancelled. Others have to be booked at the last minute and new scripts learnt at a somewhat faster pace than usual as a result. These constant changes and others that come with the lifestyle can build up stress. But in themselves they are more manageable because they’ve happened a few times already and you learn not to be surprised if they happen again. “I’d really like to affirm your ability to cope with change” says the team leader “because some friends of ours in the States have an autistic son so I know how challenging it can be.” A very heartening comment and one I’ve sold myself with ever since. In short, you can cope with unexpected change a lot better when you know what kind of unexpected to expect. And you cope even better when you know the logic behind the change. Or is that just me?

POSTSCRIPT: A MORE SEVERE CASE

On an earlier tour with said drama ministry in a different configuration, I stay at the home of a lady whose teenage son has Asperger’s. Like me at his sort of age, he’s doing a course that involves being in a work placement three days of the week and in college the other two. “It’s too much change for him” his mother says. My own reaction is one of befuddlement. For me, that was at least a routine and the change in itself is not an unexpected one.

It’s worth repeating. All Aspies have some of the classic symptoms more pronounced than others.

Quote from Black Friday written by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker ©1974 MCA Music Publishing, A Division of Universal Studios, Inc. (ASCAP)

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