An A to Z of autistic life: C is for Change

I have always found change difficult. I know that it is constant, and often necessary, but that does not mean that I have to like it! My aversion to change is such that I have stayed in situations that were clearly very bad for me for years longer than I should have done. I have resisted change that deep down I could see would be for my own benefit. I have frequently said no to change before even learning what was proposed. So what is going on in my head to make me like this? I wish I knew!

What is well known is that many autistic people need routines and any changes to these can be extremely stressful. The need for routine comes, I think, from living 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, in a world that is not designed for how our brains work.

When you learn a new, fairly complex task that involves doing several things at once, the key is generally to practice the basic parts, the foundations, until they become automatic and you can then focus your attention on learning new parts on top of that. Take driving for example. You practice basic control of speed and steering before getting into things like more complex manoeuvres, operating the lights and so on.

For many autistic people, our routines are that foundation that we can build on without further thought. We have to consciously consider almost every single thing we do, as so much as of what the world expects seems to go against what comes naturally for us. Of course, thinking through every single thing you do in a day is simply impossible. So the way we cope is to try and make some functions and tasks automatic, becoming part of our routine, which leaves our mental capacity free to deal with other things, like considering if someone speaking to us is saying one thing while meaning something completely different that we are supposed to pick up on by their tone or body language!

If you take away our routine, it is like having to start all over again. Our foundation for our daily life is gone. It can and does come back with time, but that time is stressful and difficult for us, and greatly reduces our capacity for doing more than the basic tasks required in a day while we focus on re-establishing that foundation.

Adjusting to working at home during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a case in point. This change was essential and for my own benefit. I really did not want to leave the house unless I absolutely had to, and certainly not to sit on a crowded bus to get to a crowded office. But the workday routine that I had followed and evolved for 30 years was wiped out literally overnight. It took me months to figure out exactly how I was going to operate effectively at home. I have just about got there now, but the process was difficult and wearing, so I am no longer surprised by my inner resistance to change.

One thing that always helps me to deal with change is to understand why it is being made and why it is needed. If I know the objectives and appreciate the problems with maintaining the status quo, I will likely still find the change hard to adapt to, but the effort and stress will at least seem to have a meaningful purpose.

But all too often, change feels like it is being made mostly for the sake of change – to show that someone new is in charge or that something is being done, whether it is what is needed or what will be effective or not. When presented with a change these days, particularly at work, I like to ask what the problem is that the change is needed to solve, and what a successful outcome from the change will look like. Sadly, I rarely get a straight answer, and more frequently am admonished for asking the questions and branded a troublemaker.

I know that some people embrace change and thrive on it. They like to rearrange the furniture regularly just to mix things up. We are all different – do what you need to do, and the world needs you and your ways of thinking and working just as much as any others. But please keep in mind that we are not all like that – change can be hugely difficult for some of us, so a change for no particular or well thought out reason can be very hard to deal with. If you can, check with those that a change will affect in advance. As I have said, a bit of explanation may go a long way, and some slight tweaks to the plan may also help in some situations. We must continue to listen to and learn from each other and make progress together.


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