Autism and a Set Routine

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“They forgot my toy,” Declan said going through his happy meal bucket as we drove away from the fast food drive thru.

“Declan, the bucket is the toy,” Catelyn offered from the seat next to him.

“I looked in my bucket and there is no toy.”

“Declan, your toy is the bucket the meal came in.”

Declan continued to shift through his meal and came to the conclusion.

“I looked.  There is no toy.  They forgot Declan’s toy.”

Starting to get exasperated, Catelyn sighed, “Declan the BUCKET is the TOY!”

“The bucket has no toy.”




We get home and I unload the kids from the car.  Declan is the first one inside and he sits right in Catelyn’s chair.

One thing Catelyn can’t stand is to have her seating rearranged

Her chair is her chair.

“Declan, you are in my seat.  Go sit in your own seat.”

“I want to sit here!”

The sibling rivalry ensued, neither child willing to budge.  Literally.  There was only one solution.

Stuff three kids in the right order in one corner of the kitchen table.  The dinner ensued and finished.  Without toys, with buckets and eaten at the comfortable spot at the table.

Autism and a Set Routine

With autism there is an insistence on set routine.  When things do not flow as expected, anxiety is created.  One can feel out of control.


According to The Asperger’s Handbook by Mark Hutten rules are very important and the person has difficulty with any change in an established routine.  The person with autism also has very rigid behavior as seen in:

  • Uunusual fears
  • Narrow food preferences
  • Carries a specific object
  • Plays games or completes activities in a repetitive manner or makes own rules for them
  • Insists on driving a specific route
  • Arranges toys/objects/furniture in a specific way
  • Is unable to accept environmental changes (e.g., must always go to the same restaurant, same vacation spot)
  • Is unable to change the way she has been taught to complete a task
  • Needs to be first in line, first selected, etc.
  • Erases over and over to make the letters just right
  • Colors with so much pressure the crayons break (e.g., in order to cover all the white)
  • Only sits in one specific chair or one specific location
  • Cannot extend the allotted time for an activity; activities must start and end at the times specified
  • Selects play choices/interests not commonly shared by others
  • Has narrow clothing preferences
  • Feels need to complete projects in one sitting, has difficulty with projects completed over time

I have spoken about many of these behaviors.  They pop up all over.  Some are big and some are small.  At least they can seem small to me.  But to the person who rigid behaviors around the need for routine, not having routine can be a very big deal.

Catelyn will not buy lunch at school as she cannot guarantee she will be first in line.  So she packs her lunch everyday.

Some behaviors are innocuous.  It’s no big deal to me if she wants to pack everyday.  But if that was not an option, how would she handle being at the last of the line?

We have not crossed that bridge, but I would not be surprised if she chose not to eat that day.

Sometimes though, when the routines are not followed problematic behavior can ensue.  There is anxiety, meltdowns, tantrums or other emotional responses that are out of proportion to the situation.  I have spoken about this before in my post, “Stubborn or Inflexible? High Functioning Autism.”  For us, Catelyn is using Superflex in her therapy and her Unthinkable she is targeting?  Glass Man:


At dinner, before I would have encouraged Catelyn to move her chair to eat from her bucket.  I would have gotten upset for her not willing to change.  Knowing that this change would cause her anxiety now, I would never do that.  I know there is a reason behind her request and I will try to help her.

Knowing where the behaviors are coming from – that there is anxiety and an out of control feeling – helps to provide understanding and insight.

For our family, I can be flexible.  I can provide understanding and heck, if they want to sit squished in a corner all together, then I am in if it helps prevent a feeling of being out of control and a possible subsequent meltdown.



6 thoughts on “Autism and a Set Routine

  1. I have never been diagnosed as autistic, but have a very set routine that I follow each and every day! Being forced to alter my routine leaves me extremely anxious and physically sick to my stomach.

    My husband hates my rigitity, but tries to help me keep on schedule each day (or he knows we both will suffer the consequeces of me not following my normal schedule!

    Kids are not the only people who should stick to a set schedule after all. People need to set a set sleeping schedule or their health will suffer!

  2. I remember so many of those things. My oldest has gotten past some of the issues as he’s gotten older, but some will probably be with him until he dies. The one I’m most happy about is his being able to find a tick that was not annoying. Does that sound strange?

    1. I understand. Finding a way to meet his needs without it affecting others. I agree! That is awesome about your oldest. I am hopeful for the same!

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