Over a decade ago, when I was working as a low-level administrator in a university student support unit, I remember a student who was a regular and frequent visitor to our service. He came in virtually every day. He spoke in a staccato, “mechanical”-sounding voice. He always wore the same choice of clothing: blue outdoor coat; dark tracksuit bottoms; white polo shirt. In all the time he was studying at that university, I never remember him wearing anything different.
I was, and am, nothing like him, right?
My mum used to work with a boy who ate Chicken McNuggets every day for lunch. Always the same number of pieces, heated to the same exact temperature. The local McDonald’s staff knew him well, and understood what he wanted, and needed.
I was, and am, nothing like him, right?
Whatever I watched, heard, or read about autism, I couldn’t relate to. I was nothing like these men and boys.
As a child, I never had visual schedules. I enjoyed back then, as I do now, a wide variety of tastes, textures, and types of food. I didn’t wear the same thing everyday; nor did I want to. My days were not uniform. The same thing didn’t happen every day. Nowadays, I get easily bored of too much of the same.
People like me can’t be autistic, right? We’re not that rigid, right?
But the reality is far more complicated, more nuanced, than it first appears.
I remember the time when my secondary school switched to a fortnightly rather than a weekly timetable. The fact that I had to remind myself which week I was on; the fact that I couldn’t neatly draw out my timetable in my planner without having to devise a “system” to neatly display both timetable variations – these things bothered me immensely. I could never quite escape the vague sense of unease about the inelegance of the arrangement.
Then there’s my extreme (internal. I keep it well hidden) perturbation whenever my regular fitness instructor isn’t working and someone else is covering the class. To the point where, at the moment, I’m not doing my favourite weekly Body Max session because I know the instructor is recovering from surgery. I’ll just do my own workouts until I spot her exercising in the gym between classes, and can find out for certain that she’s back in charge.
And then there’s the fact that (and I’ve quote-unquoted my dad on this before) drawing was “the only time I was ever truly spontaneous”. Everything else in my life had to be rigorously planned. Prepared for. Structured.
That’s still the case today. It’s why I struggle with keeping momentum at work during university vacation time, and why I often experience sudden bouts of acute depression when I have too much time on my hands if I’m on holiday.
The routine isn’t there. There are too many individual, on-the-fly, ad hoc decisions to be made. There’s not enough structure, and so I struggle to keep the chaos of the world around me at bay.
There are countless other examples of my need for rigidity. It’s ingrained.
Right now, I’m going through a horrendously uncertain period at work. Nothing about me personally, but the details of which I’d rather not go into here. Partly because I, and those around me, don’t actually know anything. But it’s preventing us doing properly all the things we should be doing as part of our regular jobs. We’re hamstrung. Stymied.
Not only is my anxiety heightened because of so much uncertainty, ambiguity and unpredictability; the regular structure of my daily and weekly work has been disturbed.
So I’ve imposed my own structure.
I’ve blocked out every day of every week with repeated, regular chunks of specific types or topics of activity. I’ve thought about what I work best on when, and organised a “timetable” accordingly. What I may be doing in each time-chunk may vary, but knowing, for example, that most Mondays and Fridays I won’t have any meetings, that I deal with anything to do with our Salesforce database on a Wednesday afternoon, and that Tuesday and Thursday mornings are my designated times for dealing with difficult email correspondence, certainly takes a load off my beleaguered mind.
My context-based Google task lists fit neatly with this structure, and I try and plan meetings to fit in too – recognising, of course, that sometimes I will need to switch things around. But even with the understanding that some flexibility is needed, I have, at the very least, a framework. Everything’s not quite so gapingly uncertain.
More recently, I’ve been having a go at bullet journalling. It’s early days, but so far I’m loving it, and this analogue, paper-based system integrates surprisingly well with my digital organisational tools, whilst also thankfully taking me away from so much screen time. I’m sure I’ll write more about it at some point…
A fellow autistic woman at work talked to me about how being organised is not a natural trait but a coping mechanism, and I’m certain this is true of me too. Many of us have to work really, really hard at organising our work, our lives, and our minds, simply to keep our heads above water and not drown in a sea of too-much-information.
But the initial effort of introducing some structure is something worth doing.
Amidst the chaos and uncertainty, a little rigidity can be lifesaving.
[Featured image shows a screenshot of the first result of a Google search for a definition of the word “rigid”]