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.
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.