I believe in the power of good routine in the management of Autism. There are a few parents who believe that routine is a bad word. That it stifles creativity. That it makes their children robotic. Why dictate the autistic child or adult’s every moment of every day? Let them be free. I have no quarrel with this way of thinking but there are a few pitfalls that need to be pointed out if parents choose to go that route. Routine is a way of structuring what is essentially chaos into bite-sized predictable packages. Autism comes with sensory imbalances and crippling anxiety. Attempting to learn or do anything productive while grappling with such overloads is tougher than you can imagine. That is why we change the environment to soothe the child. Music has to be at a certain volume, if the child likes music. No harsh lights. No unnecessary sounds. Touch only if asked to.
Once the environment is set, the next step is to follow a routine so that tasks and activities and even fun games have a slot in the day. There are stretches where the child, provided his comprehension has grown sufficiently, can collaborate with the parent or teacher to choose what he or she wants to do. Freedom to make decisions, freedom to make mistakes and freedom to change your mind – all that is built into the structure that is constantly evolving to accommodate the growth in the child. The child feels secure knowing he is safe. Anxiety, which is a constant feature for those on the spectrum, goes down. The brain no longer responds in ‘flight or fight’ mode and executive control functions can slowly begin to build. The adult who is the primary caregiver doesn’t feel as overwhelmed as she does if every minute of the day is spent on red alert struggling to react to situations that may or may not happen to the same degree time and again. Routine builds structure, clearing a path through the mayhem that causes debilitating anxiety in a brain with autism.
Routine and structure also build autonomy. Knowing where the boundaries are helps the child to make decisions with more confidence. Knowing what to expect next makes the possibility of choice a reality. If our education does not lead to autonomy then the system is a failure. If, by our every action as a parent or a teacher, we build more dependence for the child on ourselves, then we have let the child down.
All of us follow routines – they may be fixed or flexible. The cycles of nature are predictable. Time is classified neatly and flows in a perfectly defined fashion. Though we know that time is not necessarily a linear concept, we have imposed a structure on it for ease of understanding. Structure is as much a part of Nature as chaos is. A brain that is as pattern-oriented as the Autism brain cannot tolerate randomness – that is why a routine matters. It does not take away a person’s independence or right to choose, instead it provides a framework for choice to become more meaningful.