Creatures of Habit | Autism and Routine

Dr David Preece, Senior Lecturer at the University of Northampton blogs about the importance of routine in the life of an autistic person.

Today is the final blog, and I’m writing now about what are known as ‘restricted and repetitive interests’; or — as my tutor Rita Jordan used to say — the fact that ‘kids with autism like to do what they do’.

“Life can be highly stressful for people with autism: bombarded by their senses in a complex social world.”

It is hardly surprising that some may seek comfort in repetition and sameness. Eating the same food, wearing the same clothes, watching the same DVD, even saying the same things: all make the world a more predictable and less scary place; and Naoki Higashida writes that ‘Repeating questions we already know the answers to can be a pleasure… It’s great fun. It’s like a game of catch with a ball.’

Similarly, people with autism can be extremely focused or fixated on their special interests. Often these may be fact-based (astronomy, league tables) but books (such as Harry Potter) and films or TV can be favourite topics too. Brain-imaging experiments have shown that the parts of the brain that light up for faces in neurotypical people light up for objects in autism. Whereas we are hard-wired to be interested in people, they are more focused on the non-social.

A need for routine and predictability, and special interests, are characteristic in autism. It is down to those of us working with people with autism to address these needs and interests. So, for example, using a ‘visual schedule’ consistently can make the world make sense and help the person with autism deal with change (just like checking your diary). Building in a student’s interests can help them engage with schoolwork. So work with the autism, not against it!

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