When we think of surprises, it is natural for us gravitate towards envisioning happy and positive moments such as receiving an unexpected gift from a loved one, encountering an old friend in an unexpected place, or stumbling upon a new opportunity. However, whilst some of us may enjoy the thrill of not knowing what’s going to happen next, it is important to recognise that many others may find surprises to be unpredictable, and an unwanted disruption to their established routines, often triggering anxiety or stress.
This particularly rings true for many individuals on the autism spectrum, where unexpected events or changes to routines can disrupt their sense of control, causing them to feel overwhelmed or anxious. This is because their brains process and interpret sensory information differently from neurotypical individuals. For example, a sudden loud noise or unexpected touch can be distressing for someone with autism, even if it may not affect a neurotypical person in the same way. Therefore, having a predictable routine can help reduce anxiety and provide a sense of stability.
Routines can take many different forms, from daily schedules and rituals to repetitive behaviours or special interests. Some autistic individuals may find comfort in having the same breakfast every day or taking the same route to work, while others may engage in repetitive movements or prefer to talk about a specific topic. These routines can be seen as a way to regulate the sensory input and maintain a sense of control in their environment.
The need for routine and structure can also extend to social situations. Autistic individuals may struggle with social communication and find it challenging to navigate complex social interactions. Therefore, they may rely on specific routines or scripts to guide them through social interactions, such as using set phrases or gestures. Changes to these routines, such as unexpected social events or new social norms, can be overwhelming and lead to anxiety or withdrawal.
It’s essential to understand that autistic people’s preference for routine and structure is not a choice or a preference; it is a fundamental aspect of their neurology. Therefore, forcing an autistic individual out of their routine or expecting them to be flexible may cause unnecessary stress and harm. Instead, it’s essential to respect their needs and work collaboratively to create a routine that works for them.
It’s crucial to understand and respect the importance of routine for autistic individuals and work collaboratively to create a structure that works for them. By doing so, we can create a more inclusive and supportive environment for all individuals. We have a robust range of resources to help remove the stressful uncertainty that comes with surprises, and aid in providing structure and routine.