Autism and Flexibility

Structure is obviously an incredibly important part of most autistic people`s lives.  Without some level of structure and routine most autistic people would be unable to cope.  Of course there are different levels of this, and some people are much more able to be flexible than others.  A structured routine can be essential for autistic people in allowing them to cope with day-to-day life, improve their organisational skills, and help them avoid stress and outbursts.  But life cannot be one long structured routine, and there must be some level of flexibility in everybody`s life.

Flexibility is hard for people with autism, but everybody who is autistic should at least try to be as flexible as they can — depending on what level of capacity they have.  This doesn’t mean abandoning any structure and routine, it simply means trying to allow some flexibility into that routine.  Somebody may have a plan for their week, and they may wish to stick to that exactly.  This could be fine for a few weeks, or even a few months, but at some point someone they have planned to see, for example, may become ill, or have an accident, and obviously there is no way around this — the autistic person`s plans will have to change.

Flexibility and Autism

It`s not easy, but there are ways of dealing with flexibility and change. One way is to have a chart that details what you are doing for the week, but include in this something that reminds you that things may change — maybe put an extra note next to things that you know are more likely to be cancelled, or changed.  Try to include some flexible time within your chart; so you might just structure a couple of periods in every day or so where you just do whatever you feel like — if you struggle with this level of spontaneity then you can write a little list of things to choose from.  This idea gives you more freedom if you do need to rearrange something on the chart, whilst keeping the stress level down.  Also, having a *Script or a *Sketch that you can read and look at if things do change is helpful because it can calm you down in the moment.  It might not stop you getting stressed, but it might help you to calm down faster.  You can also come up with a plan B beforehand; i.e. say to yourself “This is what we are planning, but if something changes we will do that instead” Also, talk about change and flexibility to the people you are likely to be making plans with, and try to make sure that they know not to make definite plans with you if they are not sure they will be able to stick to them.  Tell people that you would rather they didn’t make any plans than make a plan they thought they’d probably have to change.  Try to be aware of certain things in advance; for example, if you are supposed to be going on a day out with your family, but for the entire evening before it`s been pouring with rain, you might think to yourself that the activity may well be cancelled because of the bad weather.   Thinking for yourself instead of being entirely reliant on what others may decide is a good way of becoming more flexible.

There is also the issue of bigger and smaller changes — some changes such as school/work holidays and Christmas we know are coming, and are therefore much more able to plan for than smaller, day-to-day changes.  Small changes could be something as simple as going from week-day to week-end mode — and vice-versa — or simply being unable to have a meal at your regular time; things that are unavoidable, and to most people minor, but which to a lot of autistic people could be incredibly distressing.  Small changes can be just as difficult to deal with as large ones and can need just as much preparation — just because something appears small to a neuro-typical person does not mean it is going to be small to an autistic person.

Even though flexibility and change are hard for people with autism, they are an inescapable fact of life.  And if you are unable to be flexible at all, your life is going to be very difficult, and never really get any easier.  Even though it is hard, and a lot of autistic people will never be entirely comfortable with being flexible, it is possible to make it that bit easier.  Start by learning how to deal with planned changes, and as your confidence grows it becomes easier to be more flexible when an unexpected change occurs.

*Learn more about Scripts & Sketches in my book `Helping Children with Autism Spectrum Conditions through everyday Transitions`.  Although the book is targeted at parents/children, the techniques can be adapted for autistic people of all ages who are struggling with transition, change, and flexibility. J

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My name is Paddy-Joe Moran. I am a 19-year-old autistic author of two books, and co-founder of autism advice service ASK-PERGERS?If you need any more help or advice about Asperger`s, or simply want to talk about it, check out my free help and advice service ASK-PERGERS? On Twitter Facebook

Also to read more from me go to my blog

And have a look at my books (at the time published under pseudonyms, but I did co-write them, trust me on that!)

Mark Blakey

Mark Blakey is the founder of the Aspergers Test Site, after a successful career working in IT Mark wanted to share what he learned from his own diagnosis. He is the author of "Emotional Mastery for Adults with Aspergers" and "An Introduction to Aspergers Syndrome". Having received lots of questions from parents with autistic children, Mark went on to found Autism Parenting Magazine. The magazine has become an essential resource aimed at improving the quality of life for families effected by Autism. Its a monthly publication containing lots of helpful articles to help develop social skills, manage challenging behavior and improve communication.

  • Lee says:

    I find his article bizarre….

    I have Aspergers Syndrome. As most people know this is a spectrum disorder (meaning that it effects different people in different ways). In this article the author is assuming that most people who are autistic HAVE to have a routine and that this is how they deal with their autism! I think this way of thinking is discriminatory and just shows how little people understand us…

    For me I absolutely DETEST routine. That has been my biggest problem in life (that and an inability to get on with people, and also being so different in how I perceive the World). I hate the workplace because it is one of monotony, routine and repetition! These things drive me crazy!!!

    So for the author of this article to say that autistic people require routine is a demonstration of his/her ignorance! What he/she is really saying is that normal people FORCE autistic people into routine as a way for NORMAL people to deal with autistic sufferers symptoms! If an autistic person was actually treated like a Human being and given any kind of choice they would tell the normal people to shove their routine right up their A***!

    Stop trying to micro-manage autistic people like you know what your talking about, we autistic sufferers HATE routine and your insistence that we endure this hell on Earth is a demonstration of just how little about us you actually know! If this level of ignorance can come from a website supposedly defending the Aspergers suffers condition, then that just goes to show how little everyday people in the World understand us!

    If your an Aspergers sufferer don’t feel like you have to follow routine just to please the ‘advice’ the ignorant authors of this website are trying to ‘impose’ on us! Listen to your heart, say NO TO ROUTINE! The structuring of banality and routine is what normal people shroud themselves in to give their life meaning, we autism suffers need no such artificial construct to find meaning in life, we find our meaning within ourselves and our own imaginations!!!

    • admin says:

      thanks for your comments Lee, I agree we are all different

    • Barry says:

      Lee, like you, I dislike structured routine. It’s possibly one reason why I wasn’t diagnosed as being on the spectrum until I was sixty.. However, the need for order and routine is a very common trait in autism. The author doesn’t say that all autistics require routine, just that most do. This was made clear in the first two sentences. It seems logical to me that once that has been made clear, that the author simply used generic terms such as “autistic people” when referring to people to whom the article applied. Obviously the article doesn’t apply to the likes of you and me. However, I am sure it will be helpful to many on the spectrum.

  • Eva says:

    Couldn’t agree more, Lee! Well said.

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