What’s Your Function?

Nonfunctional. This word drives me nuts.

I’ve seen it used to describe autistic behavior in the context of “nonfunctional routines” and “nonfunctional play.”

Raise your hand if you think your routines are “nonfunctional.” I will happily concede that my routines are inflexible and specific, even weird and inexplicable at times, but nonfunctional? No way.

My routines have purpose. Without them, I risk becoming paralyzed or adrift. My carefully organized life goes all to hell. The plants don’t get watered. The dog may or may not get fed. I forget to shower. I get anxious about what’s for lunch before I’ve even finished breakfast. I spend too many hours happily chasing after this idea or that, forgetting that the rest of the world exists.

In the absence of routines, I just plain forget to do things. I drift. I perseverate and spend way too much energy on the blizzard of little choices that typical people find effortless and aspies find exhausting, never getting around to the more important stuff. I become all details and no big picture.

Take breakfast, for example. I find it fascinating that some people (a lot people?) wake up not knowing what they’ll have for breakfast. Presumably they walk into the kitchen or the diner or 7-11 and just decide on the spot what they’d like. This is an amazing feat of executive function and one that I would find stressful beyond words.

I eat the same thing for breakfast everyday. It frees me from having to think about what I’m in the mood for in the context of what we have in the house, the comparative calories and nutritional value of my choices, how much time it would to prepare each choice, the possibility that I’ve left some better choice off my list not to mention the fact that I’d have to shop for these choices at some point, thereby having to choose not once but twice.

Instead, I grab a bowl, slice up some fruit, dump in my favorite cereal and pour milk over it. It’s simple and it makes me happy and I don’t have to use up precious brain resources before the sun is barely over the horizon. That seems pretty damn functional to me.

Routines give my life structure. Within my routine, I always know what I need to do next or I at least have a limited number of “preprogrammed choices” to pick from. While this doesn’t entirely prevent unwanted surprises, it reduces them to a tolerable level.

If you’re not thinking “yes, exactly!” at this point, you’re probably thinking I’m the most boring rigid monotonous person in the history of humankind.

Fear not, I can be flexible if I have to. Let’s stay with the breakfast example. There are times when breakfast at home isn’t an option. Vacations. Special occasions. Power outages. This used to upset me, but I’ve learned that being grumpy at breakfast when there are so many delicious things to choose from is not only an example of a nonfunctional attachment to routine but a real drag.

At first I had to do the adult equivalent of a social story: Sometimes the restaurant doesn’t have the food I want to eat. That’s okay. There are a lot of other foods on the menu that I can try. Many of them are probably things that I would enjoy.

(That doesn't look like me at all but I have zero drawing skills so I had to rely on the stock characters at Pixton for an assist)
(That doesn’t look like me at all but I have zero drawing skills so I had to rely on the stock characters at Pixton for an assist)

Yes, I felt a bit odd having to repeat this to myself, but over time it worked.

Which isn’t to say that I’m routine-free on these magical breakfasts away from home. I can be happy with coffee if the restaurant doesn’t have chai. I can enjoy French toast as much as an egg sandwich or a bowl of oatmeal.

You won’t catch me spontaneously ordering a mango smoothie or freestyling my way through the make-your-own-omelet choices. I still have a routine for breakfast; it’s just different.

I’ve discovered that it’s not routines themselves that are problematic, it’s the appropriateness of the routine I choose to run. At home, I need to run the home breakfast routine; when I’m out, I need to run the restaurant breakfast routine. The restaurant breakfast routine has more options. It’s not one that I’d want to run everyday, but I can do it as needed without the kind of negative consequences I’d face if I had no routine at all.

What does no routine at all look like?

The Scientist and I went to a new lunch place last week. First of all, it was one of his totally unplanned let’s be spontaneous adventures so I was already a bit flustered by the last-minuteness of it all. The menu was blessedly limited, except for the all-day breakfast option, which I considered then eliminated on principle, although I’m still wondering even as I type this if I should have factored the breakfast items into my decision.

Anyhow, I ended up choosing a grilled ham and cheese but not before I’d analyzed the pros and cons of everything on the menu that I’d even remotely consider eating. I cycled through a half-dozen choices before settling on the ham and cheese, mostly because that was the choice I was thinking about when the waitress appeared in front of me. If she’d arrived a minute earlier, I would have had a BLT. Before that I was settled on a burger. Thirty seconds later and I might have ended up with ham and egg sandwich.

I have no idea how long I would sit there looking at the menu if I wasn’t forced by circumstances to make a final decision. Ten minutes? A half hour? Indefinitely?

Choosing what to eat at a new restaurant probably sounds trivial to anyone who is running at full executive function capacity. For those of us who have impaired EF, every single one of these decisions uses up resources that could be better spent on important stuff like being productive at work, home or school.

Routines may look nonfunctional and even limiting, but they’re often just the opposite. They allow me to spend less time sweating the small stuff, freeing up my brain for the more important aspects of adulting.

68 thoughts on “What’s Your Function?”

  1. Where I live, the restaurants often have menus posted outside. Part of my restaurant routine is reading the menu outside and making my decision before I get inside, so that I don’t get so flustered when the waitress starts being cheerful at me. I think some fancy restaurants have their menus online too, so maybe that would help for other people?

    It is really hard for me to flexible about this and look at the menu inside, hard to make a decision, feeling self conscious because everyone else has already made a decision, feeling self conscious about feeling self conscious…

    I eat the same thing every day pretty much. I use Goal-Fish for variety (I vary the spices. Same food, different spices. I looked up combinations of spices on the internet and one is chosen for me at random whenever i make food. Of the listed spices, I use the ones I have and ignore the ones I don’t.)

    If I get too low on one nutrient or another I will start daydreaming constantly about a food that contains it, so I’ll find a way to break through my routine to get what I’m missing or find some way to incorporate it into my regular meal.

    (My usual meal is one of each vegetable in the house put in a pot with rice and oil and water and spices and beans.)

    I get the vegetables at the market and I just get a few of whichever look good. This does mean I get the same ones every time, mostly, though you can’t buy veggies out of season where I live, so it changes with the seasons. The farmers comes in from the village with their vegetables and fruit every morning. In winter, there are root vegetables and flowers, but now it’s summer and there’s more variety.

    1. I always look for a menu online if I can before going to a new restaurant. My husband’s spontaneity messed up my system! 🙂

      I often feel self-conscious about how long it takes me to decide too. It seems like everyone is ready to order but me most times, unless it’s a place I regularly eat at. There are a few usual spots I like to eat and I tend to pick which one to to go based on what I’m in the mood for, so my order is predetermined. If I want fish tacos, I go to the dinner, spaghetti and meatballs is another place, burger and fries another, etc. When I lived in the same town for nearly 20 years, there were a few smaller lunch places I could go into and they knew exactly what I wanted and were just like, “the usual?”

      Your cooking system sounds healthy. You get lots of fresh season veggies and it changes regularly but not so much as to be confusing or taxing.

  2. I have a bunch of routines, and all serve to help prevent me from being late, forgetting stuff like medication, etc.

    If I miss one part, it throws everything off. If I miss everything for more than a day (like if I go away on vacation), it throws me off for a month.

    My routines stop me from getting stuck in analysis paralysis. They keep me moving. They do thinking on trivial matters for me so I can focus my brain power on stuff that matters, while doing the remembering of routine chores for me so I don’t have to divert energy to remember my medications and peak flow meter and so on and so forth. I wake up, sit up, rub my eyes (thrice), start coffee in the kitchen, then grab my unofficial work day uniform (jeans, T-shirt, sock, underwear, sweater if it’s cold, all cotton), shower, get changed, take my medicine, brush my teeth, then go make breakfast (cereal, with milk and a banana, in one of three cups depending on which is clean), then bring it back to my computer and check email as I eat. Finished eating, I prepare lunch, pack lunch and . In that order. Every day.

    So… yeah, I can relate to your routines. I have them, too. 🙂

    1. That’s a really important point about using routines to avoid forgetting to do key daily tasks.

      I’ve seen all sorts of advice like putting post-it notes up or making lists, but half the time I’d forget to read the list/post-it note. Routines are really important to help me remember what needs to get done. Like I feed the dog when I eat breakfast and again when I eat lunch. She sometimes doesn’t eat her second meal until late afternoon, but I don’t have a consistent late afternoon “cue” so putting the food out when I’m making my lunch guarantees that she gets two meals a day.

      People who don’t rely on routines seem perplexed about why goofing someone’s routine can be so upsetting, but it really is disturbing. Like you said, it can throw everything else off and spill over into other parts of life.

      1. My worst pet peeve with people who tell you to write stuff down to remember: “Use an agenda to avoid forgetting stuff!”

        Problem: I now have more stuff to forget since instead of remembering the task, I have to remember to write the task down, remember to check the agenda to see what I have to do, and remember to check it off once it’s done. Instead of n things to remember, I have 2n + 1. This totally helps me not forget to do stuff! */sarcasm* Plus, tiny thing = lost thing in short order for me. 😛 Easier to make a routine of making my to-do list for the day when I sit down at work.

        So, yeah. Agendas are counter-productive. Much better to tie everything to routines.

        1. I bet if you told the average person who suggested using an agenda that “Instead of n things to remember, I have 2n + 1.” they would look at you like you had two heads. Makes perfect sense to me, but . . . 🙂

          1. I’m used to people looking at me like I have two heads. I abstract to math a lot and used to be the kid who’d read the dictionary for fun. It goes with the territory. 😛

        2. *grins wryly* Oh, yeah. That’s always part of the problem. (It’s why I tried to find a program I could use on my computer, phone, and e-reader that would alarm me when I had to do something!) But yes, it’s definitely a 2n+1 problem.

          🙂 tagAught

          1. I had a great program on my new cellphone, with alarms and timers and everything…. annnnd then the power supply on my phone died. I’m waiting on the company to send me a service box so it can be serviced. If it’s not here by tomorrow, I might have to phone since it was supposed to be here Friday.

            I strongly dislike phoning relatives, who I know and can recognize the pauses of. Phoning strangers who will have unfamiliar speech patterns, while frustrated and knowing I’m going to face intentionally-labyrinthine and disorganized bureaucracy the day after I get over an illness? Ugh. Not looking forward to it at all.

            1. Oh no! I hate it when the “system” doesn’t work properly and we’re left with the hassle of trying to get something to happen that should have happened without any additional hassle. I hope your box shows up or at least that the bureaucracy isn’t too horrible to navigate.

    2. I’m pretty sure that I’m going to have the words “analysis paralysis” stuck in my head for a few days now. The phrase is so accurate and catchy!

      1. I can’t claim credit for it: a gamer friend of mine in RL coined it to describe people who spend hours vacillating between builds to try to get the most minmaxy build possible.

        But I realized quickly it describes my tendency to spend hours vacillating between options to get the most optimal choice possible perfectly.

  3. I have memorized a few – simple things that I know I like. That way, if the restaurant doesn’t have one of them I just look for the other ones, and I don’t get stuck reading the menu like a novel, ha, which I used to do. In the past I’d think about the origins of the ingredients, whether said ingredients are in season and if not whether I want to eat canned whatever, whether the cook is likely to do a good job with the particular item, if I think the restaurant smells good, (this is a biggy), if other people are loud and annoying then I get distracted into that issue, well, you get the idea. 🙂

    1. There are so many potential factors that can influence a menu choice! 🙂 I have a few standbys too and that’s usually what I’ll end up going with in a new restaurant if I’m stumped. Or sometimes I’ll find a safe choice and put it in reserve in case the waitress shows up sooner than expected, then go hunting for something I might like better.

  4. I also have to have some kind of routine, or my whole day gets drawn out or I forget something. And when I don’t have a plan or a routine, I really don’t and it shows. For ex., I didn’t think I needed to actively plan out how to mow the lawn, because other people seemed like they were able to intuitively plan this out without needing to consciously tell themselves how. Turns out I was wrong, I actually need to tell myself how everything is going to work, even when it’s just making breakfast, mowing the lawn, playing video games, driving the car, etc. It’s the only way I can remember what to do and not forget anything. I’m my own Let’s Play video (if you look up Let’s Play videos on Youtube, you’ll know what I mean)!

    Anyway, I also have problems ordering food, especially in new restaurants-I can narrow my choices down to two, but then I get stuck at this routine until time is up to pick an order: “A or B? A or B?!” The only way to resolve that “paradox” is to create another routine where I imagine my eyes are closed and pick a choice blindly. Even with that routine, it’s still pretty stressful for me.

    1. I just lost ten minutes to trying to figure out what the heck happens in Let’s Play videos and I’m befuddled. I do, however, get the reference you’re making. I think. 🙂

      The first couple of times I do something, I tend to be slow and confused and have to ask lots of questions. Until I find the right sequence of actions and such, I flounder around a lot. But once I have a system, look out.

      Maybe there needs to be an app for settling the A or B question?! Like a two sided die or wheel that spins and lands on one. It would save us from that last minute panicked decision.

      1. Whoops, I think a walkthrough might have been a better reference. Although, a Let’s Play video might actually be a good idea of what other people are seeing/hearing when I’m trying to figure things out at first haha 😀

  5. I can’t stand going to restaurants, because I have tons of food allergies and I’m really sensitive to food textures, so my choices in any restaurant are really limited and I get pretty anxious about it. Generally, though, I know what you mean about routines. I had an appointment today that had to be cancelled at the last minute, which freed up my entire day, and I just sat down at my desk and thought of about a thousand different things I could do, but instead I’ve just been staring into space without settling on anything.

    1. Oh gosh, yes, unexpected free time confuses me. And then I start feeling like I’m *wasting it* and that’s more stressful because my brain is like, “look at all this free time you could be making good use of AND YOU’RE NOT!” Ack.

      At work I have a magnet board where I stick non urgent things that I need to do at some future time and I’ve sort of training myself to pull something off there if I finish work unusually early and don’t know what to do next.

  6. I am really starting to wonder more and more about my father. He was all about routine. You could tell what day of the week it was by what he had for breakfast and what he had to drink after work.
    MWF were cereal (there were usually 3 to choose from, since he didn’t like repetition), Tu was eggs, Th was leftover waffles homemade on Sundays. Saturdays were more flexible since it was a family breakfast. But, 6 days of the week were set.
    After work, he would have one drink a day. MWF were scotch and water. Tu was wine. Th was a martini. Sat and Sun were beer.
    All of his suits for work were hung in his closet on matching hangers. He would wear whatever suit was on the far left. When he got home and took his suit off, it would be put on the far right. With 2-3 weeks worth of suits, this gave each suit time to air out to reduce how often they needed to be dry cleaned. It also made sure that each suit got even wear. Heaven forbid Mom hadn’t washed and ironed the correct color shirt to go with the suit for the day. I don’t know why he didn’t just stick with white shirts, or different shirts and all black suits. That is what I would do. One piece can vary, the other stays the same so there is no mix-and-match issues.
    My kids only get denim or light khaki pants and shorts. Then, they can choose their shirts and I don’t have to worry about what matches. I am the same. I also buy all matching white socks for the kids. I do have white and black socks, but they were all bought in bulk so that it is easy to make pairs and all I have to choose is black or white.
    The funny thing is that my husband and I are both on the spectrum, but we both tend to almost resist routine for most things. We look for jobs that allow lots of flexibility in schedules. I would be miserable doing the same thing at the same time every day. For me, I think it is because as a kid, I didn’t like how rigid my Dad was, so I rebelled and decided to not have so much routine. Now, I am starting to wonder how much time and energy I am wasting every day not having those routines. On the upside, our autistic son is pretty flexible and doesn’t insist on a lot of routine either. I am sure he could use more routine in his life, and I am trying to learn to provide that.

    1. That sounds a lot like my family growing up. We had lots of routines. My mom did and I guess still does specific housework on specific days each week. My dad always came home at the same time, we ate dinner at the same hour every night, my parents had the same before-dinner drink every day (though my mom’s varied seasonally). We only went out to dinner on Friday and Saturday nights to a limited set of places and in conjunction with either church or visiting my grandmother. Bedtimes and mornings had set routines. I think this was immensely comforting for me because I always knew what to expect. It probably also made me overly rigid. It’s taken me a long time to loosen my grip on some of my less helpful routines and rigidities.

      It’s interesting what you mention about your and your husband’s jobs. I have the ability to schedule my work day any way I choose and I do often take advantage of that to work according to how I’m feeling. I think I would struggle with a regimented workday (i.e. one where the schedule was set by someone else) because I need mental and physical breaks during the day to be efficient. I do have a good amount of routine built into the day, but I’m less rigid about my work days than about other aspects of life.

      Maybe seeking out a flexible work schedule isn’t so much about rebelling for you as about having the flexibility to make a schedule that works best for you and doesn’t push you beyond your limits?

  7. “Yes, Exactly!” I am much happier having routines. I have developed some comfort with occasional spontaneity, but I usual have a bit of a recovery period after some spontaneous adventure, no matter how small.

    I like going out to restaurants, and do have “usual meals” at the ones I frequent. At new restaurants I am usually very limited due to my rigid diet (Vegan + a little fish), and that makes it a little easier to choose, since there are usually only a couple of choices, if any. When we go to special dinners, or the rare vegan restaurant, I use a trick my wife uses. I ask the waiter/waitress what they recommend. Though that has been fun at times, it does kind of go under the heading of an adventure that requires a bit of a recovery period.

    One fantastic example of that was when went to an amazing fine-dining-vegan restaurant run by a woman we came to trust. She had a micro-restaurant that could only serve about 16 people at one time, and has unfortunately closed up shop. But the last time we were there and happened to be the only patrons at the time, we just asked her to make whatever she wanted for us. It was great, but a very very rare chance . That kind of goes under the heading of relinquishing control so I do not have to get upset by the decision making process, but that requires being in a situation wherein I can trust whoever I have entrusted.

    Mostly though, routines are critical for me to be comfortable. We keep a family calendar on the pantry door and the more detailed that is the better. That way I can see any deviation from routine in advance and prepare. I also have to use a very detailed calendar at work. And I, too, have a really hard time with spontaneous free time.

    1. Asking the waitress for a recommendation is brave! My husband does that sometimes and it seems to work well for him.

      We keep our family calendar in Google so it’s on our computers and phones. Without that and my “to-do” list I’d be lost. It’s amazing what a big impact that small, easy to implement supports like that make.

  8. Restaurants! The hardest time for me is when I order my favorite, and it isn’t cooked well. Then, the next time I come in, I’m paralyzed by, “Do I order it again anyway? What if it’s messed up again? Is it worth it? Do I order something else? Ahhh!”

    1. Yes to getting thrown off if something gets messed up. I ordered my favorite burger at Chili’s a couple of months ago. It’s supposed to come with mustard but for some reason had mayo (ew) instead. So last week I order the same thing and I tell the waiter three times that I want it with mustard not mayo and when it arrives it has no mayo and no mustard either. :-/ It really shouldn’t be that hard to cook a thing exactly the way it’s described on the menu, right?

      Er, sorry, I got carried away. 🙂


    Except I don’t have a routine at all. I forget things, like feeding the cats, etc. I perseverate constantly. When I have a routine, I cope with things much better than I am right now. But I don’t have one and I need one desperately. My mom really isn’t the type for routine, so it makes it difficult for me to stay on one. I need one, I know that I do, but I really don’t even have the ability to make one at this point. I handle things so much better on a strict routine.

    Sigh. (previously theamberaven)

    1. Oh, hey there person with the new name. 🙂 Perserveration is a big problem when you’re trying not to forget something important. Routines definitely help me with that, too.

      Maybe you could talk with your mom about needing more routine and ask her to help you get on established? Or maybe just try to get her on board with giving you the space to have and stick to a routine. I know some people not only don’t need routines but have trouble even thinking about them. My husband is Mr. Anti-Routine. He’d be lost at where to start if I asked him to help me make/follow a routine.

      1. I have to admit that I think people who say they don’t have routines are a bit silly. 😛

        Because you don’t see them trying to put underwear on after their trousers. Or turning the microwave on before they’ve put food inside. Or sticking their knives in the peanut butter jar to make a PBJ and not having any bread ready to put it on.
        Oh. They do actually do all those things sometimes. And then they say, oh silly old me, I wasn’t thinking. ABOUT THE PROPER ORDER TO DO THINGS IN.
        People are so funny. 😛

      2. One warning: I don’t know you or your parents, nagareboshi, so this may or may not apply to you but it applied to me growing up. If your parents are very pro-enforced-normalization like mine were (even though I didn’t have a diagnosis then), you’ll want to phrase it as a comfort thing rather than an executive function thing. Speaking from experience here, when I was a kid, I told them that I couldn’t remember to do stuff if I had to remember what was going to happen that day because I only had so much remember space in my brain (I think I was about 11 then), and they told me that was no excuse and that I should just try harder.

        A few years later, I told them that doing different things every day leaves me off-balance and unsettled because I never know what’s going to happen. I asked them if they liked feeling like they have no idea what was going to happen all the time, and they replied they didn’t feel like that but could understand how it would be no fun. So then I asked if we set up a few things that are samey every day so I know most of what’s going to happen, and they said yes.

        Which is something that pisses me off about allistic people: They’re so certain that they know what’s best for me more than I do that they’ll deny something I need if they think I’m asking for it for the “wrong” reasons. That has caused more than a little friction in my family. No, you don’t get to deny my needs just because you disapprove of the fact that my needs are different from yours. Thankfully, I’m now an adult and thus can say, “If you want me to go, there has to be a quiet place I can go to if it gets too loud.”

        Teenagerdom is crappy because you know what you need and want and are expected to take care of your needs and wants to a large extent, but you’re often not given the freedom to do so and then are blamed when you fail. You are also often expected to act adult and sometimes are handed adult responsibilities (like how my sister and I shared de facto primary caregiver status for my foster sibs – long story), without being given anything remotely resembling adult freedom (case in point: I had to ask permission if I wanted to walk to the cornerstore… even though I could drive and was the de facto primary caregiver along with my sister).

  10. Heh… the menu situation sounds familiar. I typically get so lost in all the options that I have to take the decision under time pressure. What works best for me is an if-then strategy : when the usual thing is available, then I’ll have that (banana bread and a latte, in most cases). If not then I will have the same as my husband or whoever is there with me… that’s a viable way to escape out of the decision making process. If don’t like that or it is too much or too complicated food, then I’ll have whatever looks easiest to handle and eat, so my food will at least not cause any further complications (socialising is the main point of eating out, after all, so food that requires too much attention isn’t practical). Typically I’ll chose a simple thing like a muffin or a pizza slice, or a Greek salad where the components are big, separate and easy to fork one by one. Or Tapas…

    If I run out of if-then rules then I’ll just panic and decide that I am not hungry anyway:-) especially if I wasn’t very hungry in the first place. I generally prefer just coffee (latte, no sugar, in a take-away cup;-)… re. routines) for most eating out-experiences meetings, because that is easy and allows me to focus on the conversation without having to spend my energy on tiring menu choices and food that is complicated to eat.

    1. Wow, your comment that the point of eating out is socializing really hit me between the eyes because for some reason I’d never considered that. Strange, because you’re right but I never thought of it in explicitly that way.

      If I run out of if-then rules then I’ll just panic and decide that I am not hungry anyway

      Good escape plan! 🙂 That would be a bad option for me. I tend to have my blood sugar fall off a cliff when I get hungry and if I don’t eat, I’ll start feeling nauseous, lightheaded, cranky, irrational . . .

      1. I didn’t know it when I was a kid. My main agenda for birthdays and family dinners (any dinner) was related to what food was on the table and how to ensure the plate with my favourite items was within reach. Success was measured in terms of favourite items eaten (before the intervention from adults and the competition from other kids could stop/restrict the access). In most childhood photos from birthday / dinner situations I’m either eating, picking up food from my my plate, looking at my food or reaching for more food – unaware of the surroundings while everyone else has stopped eating and look up, smile to the camera, talk or is involved in some other social activity. I don’t remember feeling overwhelmed by the background noise like I am now in such situations (I do remember it in other situations e.g. kindergarden, but not birthdays, Christmas, dinner et.c). All I remember is the specific food items that I liked (the taste, sensation, look, smell) and my strategies to get as many as possible… So apparently I was able to block the surroundings out with food focus. Unfortunately that doesn’t work anymore and even if it did, it is not a viable strategy for an adult. (and I was criticised a lot for being greedy, selfish, inappropriate et.c when I was a kid, so I guess it wasn’t really a great childhood strategy either). So now my focus is contrary… I focus on social awareness and down-prioritise the food.

        1. I realized you meant socializing after the first few sentences. 🙂

          You know, I don’t remember being overwhelmed by background noise so much when I was younger either. I think that was in part because I would escape into my own little world knowing that the adults would steer me in the right direction, tell me when it was time to leave or do something, etc. As adults, we need/are expected to be more aware of our surroundings and the people around us maybe? I can still zone out in public, but then I’m likely to not hear my train stop called out or get run over by a car. It goes back to the having more an on/off switch for attention, rather than a filter to screen out the unnecessary stuff.

          1. As adults, we need/are expected to be more aware of our surroundings and the people around us maybe? I can still zone out in public, but then I’m likely to not hear my train stop called out or get run over by a car. It goes back to the having more an on/off switch for attention, rather than a filter to screen out the unnecessary stuff.

            I think that totally nails it. I’ve wondered why I was better able to stand/ignore noisy places when I was little. I think it is because I was in a sort of bubble, where the surroundings did not exist when I was focused on something – the attention switch was off:-) and you are right, it was probably because I did not have to monitor or manage anything in the surroundings because the adults were in charge of my well being and safety.

  11. My “nonfunctional behaviors” keep me stable, thus they keep me functional. Yes, I do have executive functioning challenges, but don’t blame it on my stimming or routines.

    1. Both stimming and routines are beneficial when it comes to cognitive function. I’ve actually written a post for next week that makes a cognitive defense of stimming as beneficial to EF.

  12. I rely on routines for almost everything: like most of the commentators here I will order the same thing when eating out rather than struggle to make up my mind for 20 minutes or so. But my wife is indecisive and has a habit of asking me the overload-inducing question “What should I have?”… My usual response is along the lines of “If you don’t know what you want, what chance have I got of figuring it out?” Plus in this case there’s the fear-of-failure element in case I suggest something she doesn’t like. I start getting anxious just thinking about it!

    1. Oh, I could swear I replied to you yesterday. Hmmmm . . .

      If anyone asks me what looks good or what they should order, my standard reply is “what are you in the mood for?” That usually occupies them for a bit. 🙂 And I totally know what you mean about the buyer’s remorse if you suggest something the other person doesn’t like. Stressful.

  13. Yes, yes, yes, and yes again!!! I laughed quite hard about the breakfast because if I have no idea what I am going to eat for breakfast ahead of time, I simply wind up not eating it at all! And as for the restaurants…I go to the same restaurants and order the same items. No matter how long I look at the menu I know that if I am in Ihop I had better order my chicken and spinach crepes because if I do not, then I will be unhappy for the rest of the day. That said, I would not order that in another restaurant because if I want crepes I go to Ihop. Each item I want has a separate restaurant that I buy it at… 🙂

    1. By the way, I had this argument with a doctor…my routines are madness are completely functional–to me. Why do they get to decide what is or is not functional. I personally think that playing with baby doll toys like they are “real” is kind of strange…they are plastic and not real babies. So..why is it non-functional play if our children treat toys like toys??? The Tot would to pretend to feed himself from an empty bowl or pretend to feed the baby dolls from empty bowls during his evaluation. I think that was smart…the bowl was empty! There was nothing to eat in it…and the dolls were plastic they could not eat even if there was food in there…

      1. Yes, exactly on going to a restaurant because you’re in the mood for a specific thing. Once I get a restaurant’s menu figured out, I rarely order more than one thing off of it and if I do stray, I usually regret it. 🙂

        Don’t even get me started on functional play! Grrrr. And that’s where the whole “no imagination” nonsense seems to come from too.

    2. True story: Accidentally skipped breakfast this morning because we were out of milk and I won’t have cereal without milk, and couldn’t decide between eggs and toast and PB before it was time to leave. XD

      1. Yes, happens to me all the time. I usually default to peanut butter on an open slice of bread with milk, but when the milk is out, or worse the bread, I usually eat nothing until lunch. Or until I am flying around the house on my broomstick! BTW, skipping the meals in conjunction with my “not knowing what to eat” is a huge contributing factor (for me and my boys) in becoming overwhelmed and meltdowns ensuing. 😦

  14. I read this post yesterday, but now I get something to say about those «disfunctional routines». Today, I had to do soo many things out of my routine, schedule and mental map that I’m still shaky, even after being back at home.
    An totally unplanned University meeting for information (I learnt about it yesterday around 10pm…), somewhere I’d never been before in my life (got lost 2 time, in fact), alone, not knowing when it would end, then getting lost again while trying to find the subway, took one I never used. After all that, I had to get myself in some weird-looking bus going somewhere on my mom’s impulse, instead of riding my well-know bus, going down somewhere between a road and another. Etc.

    Just to say, those «unfunctional routines» is the only thing that make me stable enough to bear the subway. To bear the total absence of direction in the campus. To keep me from forgetting little things like dressing up, homework, where the hell is my classroom in one of those building… (okay, I’m getting lost often, but this place is a maze)… So where does this «unfunctional» come from? Doing the same thing in the same order enable us to actually function, so it’s functional! It’s remind me of the «lack of imagination in autistic» or «autistics can’t reproduce»…

    And for me, being «unfunctionaly repetitive» enable me to handles days like today, with lot of unplanned trips to a foreign destination without any maps and with my mp3 player running dead without ending up in a meltdown in public. It’s not paradise, it’s not easy, but it is possible. So humanity gonna deal with it :D!

    1. That sounds like a long day! Going new places can be really confusing. I get lost a lot too, especially if I have to take public transportation. Part of my routine for going somewhere new is to program it into Google maps on my phone AND print out directions with a map. 🙂

      Maybe there will come a day when autistic people will write the “official” literature about autistic traits and we can get rid of the judgmental language.

  15. I’ve just checked and my diagnostic assessment report and it notes that while my life seems to be governed by a large number of specific rules and routines, those ‘appear to be useful rather than impairing’. So I guess this means my routines are officially ‘functional’ …or that I’m very good at explaining the reasons why I do things so I escaped the ‘nonfunctional’ label.

    The local Asperger Team has generally been encouraging me to add more useful structure and routine to my life because it clearly helps me, also to be better at disclosing and advocating for myself, rather than bluffing and struggling as a result. They’re really great and I’m very lucky to have access to them for free.

    This said, I think there are such things as nonfunctional routines, I certainly have a tendency to form negative routines and end up doing the same sort of procrastination every day or giving myself ‘jet lag’ every weekend. I also find myself falling into patterns that border on OCD sometimes, not wanting to touch certain things and so getting into a mess as a result. Those certainly seem like nonfunctional routine formation that I have to work against.

    1. The doc who diagnosed me seemed to think my routines were supportive when they were work related and he kind of joked about them in other areas, hinting that they added to my rigidity. Hadn’t thought of that until just now. Maybe work routines are more naturally accepted because they’re seen as a productivity tool and work isn’t supposed to be a spontaneous activity (for many of us, at least)?

      I envy your support team. It would be nice to have AS experts to check in with once in a while, sort of like having a life coach, I suppose (in my fantasy version of what they do).

      I definitely have some counterproductive routines and I’ve been working on letting them go and avoiding forming new ones. Self talk, which I don’t usually have a lot of use for, has been really helpful in breaking out of habits that aren’t helpful, as has getting my husband to remind me when I’m “doing it again”. 🙂

  16. When I was a kid (and I don’t just mean a very little kid) I used to hate when my mom would try to get me to plan out every little task of my life, which she was feeling like she had to do with things like eating when I should and brushing my teeth and washing my face, or making lists of any kind. I realize now it’s cause I was a kid, I didn’t really have responsibility, so I thought my time was definitely better spent doing things like getting lost in my special interests rather than all the effort of getting all those things done. and I thought “when I need to do it I’ll just do it!” But of course that never happened.

    Away from home at college I VERY quickly realized I get nothing done without a strict routine and tons of charts and lists. And it puts me much more at ease to have them.

    1. It sounds like your mom was very wise and had the foresight to give you some basic adulthood survival skills. 🙂 I love my lists too. Right now my kitchen counter is covered in lists.

  17. This was really interesting read!
    I never thought about it, but I also tend to eat the same every day – depends on what is at home. Althogh, dinner tend to be different – and I tend to think a lot about what I shoud eat. Sometimes I just skip dinner if I am too tired and feel like it will be hard to decide.

    When I go to a restarant, I usealy look at the menu on the internt first. This is very useful, because I can see if there is somthing I would like *and* if it is vegan. Being vegan actually makes choices of food much easier, because it makes the menu much smaller for me. The problem startes at vegan places, where are planty of choices to make. I mostly end up on the thing I am most curios about or somthing that I defenetly will like, or just something I had some cravings for.
    At ice cre places (where I usealy go with my spause) we usealy order 0.5 liter of icecream with all the kinds that we want to try. If I go alone, most of the times it is Ok,because most of the places has an option of having one ice cream ball that is partly one kind and partly enorher – in the same price. Latley I was in a place which alowed me to combine 3 kinds of ice cream. I had a firework stick in my bag so I asked the worker to put in in my ice-cream and light it. It was amazing! ^-^

    1. That’s a great point about being vegan shrinking the menu for you. A few months ago I started eating a paleo diet and because that rules out grains and beans, it definitely narrows my choices as well. I thought the limited options would make eating out hard, but you’re right with a lot less to choose from its much easier to make a choice in a new restaurant.

      1. In Israel many the places are Kosher, which means that the restaurant will not serve food that has meat *and* dairy. It helps because most of the Kosher places which offer meat have at least some vegan choices. Places which are dairy oriented are problematic, because every thing (except the water) contains milk. I tent to avoid such places, because I can find myself eating salad, and I can’t see why should I pay 30 NIS (~8$) just to eat something I can make at home for much much less…

  18. My restaurant strategy:
    I go through the menu, starting at the specials, as I’m less likely to make those at home.
    When I find something that sounds at least OK, I mark it with a finger. If I subsequently find something better, I move my finger to my new choice.
    When the waiter/waitress comes, I order what I’m pointing at – it’s the best I could find in the time allowed.
    Note, this only works if I don’t let people talk to me while I’m choosing – they’ll make a snap decision when ordering, but I need time to make an informed choice.
    My routine is not ‘normal’ but it’s functional!

  19. This brought me to tears: “the blizzard of little choices that typical people find effortless and aspies find exhausting, never getting around to the more important stuff. I become all details and no big picture.” I’ve been chastising myself about this for a long time. Io am often p paralysed by these choices. One bad situation is when I have to do errands in two different directions from home. I’m unable to make a plan that would get me to the two (or 3 or 4) stores before they close, would be a route I can navigate and avoid rush hour, etc. Often I just don’t go, even if the errands are pressing. It becomes impossible to figure out.

    I’m trying to get back into doing crochet, and I spend hours a day exhausting myself, looking at patterns I like, unable to decide on one to start.

    I took an aspie spectrum test a year or so ago, and found that I’m most likely on the spectrum, which explains so much to me. I just turned 70, and it’s frustrating, nightmarish really, that I never knew how to understand my mind, and help myself function and communicate well. My parents were abusive, and I’ve always blamed myself for not behaving the “right way.” I was trained to blame myself.

    Recently I had a communication crisis at my favorite natural food store. Apparently, I had been repeatedly “harassing” the staff. (I thought I was communicating better and better!) I was lectured by an angry department manager as if I were a naughty child. It was very traumatic. But it did make me think, and I remembered the aspie quiz results. I think my multiple chemical sensitivity had also made me anxious and brain-foggy when I “harassed” store staff. Still not sure how to avoid further crises, but at least I have clues to the causes.

    Thank you for an illuminating blog! It’s so helpful.

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