Decoding My Autism

For a long time, I've tried to understand what goes on in my brain. Along the way, I've learned some things and made discoveries that have helped me live a better life.

  • Dan Bell

Lined Up Toys and Structured Days: The Need for Order

Regularly I see parents post on social media with pictures of their autistic child's toys, lined up in a row, or in a circle, or some other unusual arrangement.

The comments from the parents about these arrangements range from amusement, to joy over the child's uniqueness, to utter confusion as to why they do it.

Along similar lines, autistic children often benefit from structure and predictability in their daily routine.

When my family would go on vacations when I was a kid, it wasn't always easy for me. Unfamiliar places, and an unfamiliar bed, were hard on me. I did much better if my family let me know ahead of time what we would be doing and what to expect.

The common thread between all these situations is the need for order. Autistic children benefit from order and structure in their lives. And when they need to, they'll impose that order themselves, like the lined up toys.

But why do we need it? Why do we thrive on it? Why do we seek it out?

In my article about Information Overload, I talk about the prefrontal cortex, the decision-making part of the brain. In autism, it is overwhelmed by details, making it difficult to make sense of the world.

This sense of being overwhelmed causes anxiety and stress, making it difficult to function.

I've talked before about how this makes it difficult to deal with unfamiliar. This time, consider what affect it would have on how we deal with familiar surroundings.

In an attempt to ease anxiety and stress, we attempt to impose order on our world. We have routines we follow, things that we must do in order to stay calm. If we can't have those things, frustration comes, and meltdowns can occur.

As I talk about in Extremely Normal, autistics have challenges that are often normal ones that everyone faces, but those challenges have been taken to extremes. This need for order in the midst of anxiety is no different. Many people with anxiety have a need for order, and are often perfectionists or micro-managers.

For autistics, we make these patterns like lining up toys because they help our world make a little more sense. We cope with a confusing world by focusing our attention on a pattern in front of us, one that is simple and helps us ignore the confusion. Or we'll insist on a certain routine each day so we know what to expect. By putting order into our own little world, it makes it easier to face the wider world around us.

And I'm not alone in this thinking. Martin Lang, a PhD candidate in Anthropology at the University of Connecticut, studies the effects of rituals on human behavior, and has written that rituals may help soothe anxiety.

So lining up toys or having routines aren't just these quirky little things we do. These little routines or rituals may be frustrating, but they're done for a reason. They're survival tactics we use to help us to get through life.

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