It’s quite a well-known fact that Autistic people dislike change, so much so that many have been know to meltdown at the idea of any change to their routine. Autistic people prefer routine because it’s safe and predictable, you know what’s going to happen, when and how. There’s less anxiety because there are fewer unknown factors. This may be the reason why some Autistic people prefer the one friend as opposed to many, because it’s easier to socialise when there are less changes and it’s easier to remember the details of one person over many.
So why then do PDAers find routine and predictability to be a greater cause of anxiety than changes and novelty?
My thoughts are that, for PDA people, if you know what is going to happen then it allows anxiety to build up, you know what’s going to happen and if nearly everything makes you anxious then knowing what’s about to happen will make you more anxious.
So why doesn’t unpredictability cause more anxiety than predictability?
For me I know it’s because I have difficulty imagining what’s about to happen. When I go to the dentist without knowing why then I can only imagine what might happen based on past experience. But us PDAers are ever hopeful and so we can pretend that this time will be different, there’s room for unpredictability so we can use our imaginations to make out like nothing bad will happen at all, we might not even make it to the dentist, who knows? However, if we know what’s about to happen, for example, knowing I have to have an injection to have teeth out, then I will be anxious, imagining the whole process and how it will hurt. There’s little room for escape. We PDAers are good at escape, we’re super avoiders. So the more we are boxed in the greater our anxiety will be.
There is some comfort in routine for us, if the routine we have is safe. If we’ve done the same thing a million times and nothing bad has happened our anxiety can ease off a little. Unfortunately even the slightest negative experience can create unbearable anxiety around a routine, and it can be easy for us to have a negative experience from almost anything.
Demands also can be easier to take when there has been some change or novelty introduced. Some parents have commented on how changing the time of certain demands such as bathing and brushing teeth can ease the anxiety around the demand and make it easier for the child to complete. Many have found introducing something different to the demand such as a novelty toothbrush and fun bath toys to be helpful. Whereas for many Autistic people these changes would produce anxiety and cause meltdowns, for PDA people they actually seem to help. I can attest to this, I find it much easier to eat meals in cafes and restaurants because the food is different to what I’m used to. Eating the same food everyday would make me ill and has caused me to strongly avoid the demand of eating for a long time. Trying new foods, variations of meals, new drinks and different locations to eat in all help me to eat regularly. Similarly, there’s nothing I like better at bath time than trying a new bath bomb or new bubble bath. Small changes like taking a different route into town can make a shopping trip easier to bare.
Of course every PDAer is different and some do find changes to make their anxiety worse while others cannot stand doing the same thing twice in the same day at all. Others find a mix of routine and changes to work best. It can take some time and much trial and error to work out what’s best for each individual and what may work for one won’t necessarily work for another. Some changes can help for a long time whereas others may be a one-time thing. For me the biggest cause of anxiety around a lack of change is in regards to food. If I could try a new food or variation of an old one for every meal then I would be happy. If I could eat in different places everyday then I would be more content. It is very difficult for me to start each day with the same bowl of cereal, breakfast is one of the hardest meals to include change in for me, one of the reason I love staying in hotels and having a continental breakfast.