Transitions, ACK!

Read up on descriptions of students with autism, Asperger’s, or Non-Verbal Learning Disorder, and you find the familiar piece about how such people “have rigid routines” or “cannot deal with changes in routine”. Some of those descriptions are um, much more rigidly defined than others. I have real problems with descriptions that use a lot of always or never, as real humans just aren’t that binary. In such cases, the author is being more literal-minded than the group they are describing!

In contrast, statements worded as, “Dislikes changes in routine” or “Has difficulty with unexpected changes in routine” would be much more accurate, especially with regards to the unexpected changes — you can brace for, and plan ahead for expected changes in routines.

Therefore, consistency in routine is suggested as a good instructional, parenting, and employment tool. It’s also recommended for students with AD/HD as a support measure.

But you know what? Everyone is attached to their routines. We like to get through our morning preparation without a lot of glitches. “OMG, we’re out of coffee!” We expect holiday celebrations to go a certain way, and when two people become a couple they find out how many rituals were specific to their own families of origin, and then the couple has to decide how they are going to select and combine both of their rituals.

People in general don’t like having to adjust their day around massive changes in their schedule, and are more than a little vexed at unexpected and unavoidable challenges thrown in. Airline travel went from something exciting to a dreaded ordeal as airport security became tighter and tighter, and the airlines restricted what kinds of and how many comfort objects people could bring with them on the plane. No, “comfort objects” aren’t just teddy bears or worry-beads; a wide variety of mundane objects like your favorite bed pillow, brand of soda and portable music player are also comfort objects.

So why are some people so much more attached to their routines, and then undone when faced with changes?

There are a several reasons, related to situational decoding, compensating, and attention-switching. Decoding problems are the difficulties faced in understanding what is going on in new situations, and then deciphering what those events signify. Compensating is about building up methods for dealing with the various demands required, as well as coping strategies to compensate for assorted difficulties. Attention switching problems result because some things place heavier processing demands on the brain, and because of a strong need for a sense of closure.

Situational decoding is a complex process. If you have ever travelled abroad and then dragged through a market while still jetlagged, you have an exquisite idea of just how difficult even the simplest things are to deal with. You’re exhausted from the jetlag or prolonged transit. The store isn’t your familiar chain, so you have no idea where they stock certain items. All of the labels and container shapes are different, so you can’t just run on “autopilot” and look for a familiar logo on a can. Even the signs are confusing where some of the words are replaced by others that may or may not mean what you guess they might mean. Once you have finally found more-or-less what you were looking for, “Paracetamol = Acetominophen, right?” paying for the purchase is yet another hurdle while you sort out unfamiliar bills and coins. Oh, help! “I can’t brain today; I have the dumb.”

You expect to run into such difficulties when travelling; lots of people get disoriented with jetlag and being in a strange place. But it “doesn’t make sense” for someone to experience the same kind of disorientation under “normal” circumstances, or to continue having bouts of disorientation after the first day. And yet, some people do. When someone gets too overwhelmed by all the sensory input or cognitive demands, the stress may cause them to have a melt-down (tantrum or anger explosion), a shut-down (withdrawal), or resort to some kind of stimming activity to sooth themselves and reduce the number of things being focused upon. It takes time and practice to learn how to monitor yourself to notice when things are getting too overwhelming and that you need to take a break, before things get so overwhelming that the stress-response is mostly uncontrollable.

The first two weeks on a new job, I spend the entire time in this brain-wringing kind of jetlaggy disorientation. (Adding in the whole faceblind-related issues of sorting out different people and finally assigning names to those individual gestalts is yet another heavy load of cognitive demand.) Unfortunately, once you have been on a new job, or in a new school for a few days, everyone assumes that you should have finished adjusting. They know all about how things run, and where things are, and how to do things. But meanwhile, I am still dizzy from the novelty, and all the new people, and having to work harder to understand what people are saying because of auditory processing difficulties, and on top of all that, I am also trying to learn how to do a new job. Consciously or not, everyone else is evaluating the newbie, and judging how intelligent or useful or friendly they think the person is.

How quickly a person sorts out a new environment depends upon a variety of factors, including the level of novelty (new towns, unfamiliar buildings, different equipment, packaging, signage, social rituals), the level of fatigue, the number of differences, or even the person’s previous familiarity with decoding variations. Sorting all the sensory stimuli, deciphering it, “patterning” it, and then creating sensible meaning to the patterns can take a while.

This is especially true for the whole patterning part, because you have to perceive which elements are significant, determine if they belong together in the same pattern, and then figure out what the pattern is related to or what it means. Then we have to be able to identify when something is different or additional to the pattern, and the resulting significance to that.

Physical environments have their own levels of significance. Travelling to an entirely new ecotone can be confusing, not so much from the massive differences in plant life or terrain, but also because you do not yet know which kinds of plants, animals, geologic structures, sounds, smells, or weather changes are important to be aware of as meaning something dangerous or something interesting or even something tasty.

Human environments carry their own different signifiers, and it takes a while to learn to figure out which items cluttering up the scenery are important and which aren’t. It can take even longer to figure out what things are not visible in the scenery but that you will need, and where you can find them and how you can get them. Ever try to figure out the plumbing in another country? Where’s the toilet flush mechanism? How do you turn on the shower? “I need to perform basic hygiene; I don’t want some bizarre plumber’s aptitude test!”

Another part of human environments are the humans themselves. People engage in a wide variety of interpersonal, social, and institutional rituals. The rituals are there to enforce norms, to exchange meanings (as signifiers), and to provide acceptable and routine ways of getting things done. Some rituals are general to the society at large, some are specific to the particular discipline, some are specific to the particular business’ culture, and some are specific to individuals.

(Sometimes the rituals are pathological, where the overt and covert signifieds are nowhere near close and may be antonyms. Such rituals are there to perpetuate dysfunctional needs of some individuals or even the organisation itself. People who have difficulty in discerning the meanings of non-literal communication, or who assume that others will engage in rational behaviour, are going to find especial difficulty working within and around these circumstances, and will quickly be the new targets and scapegoats.)

If you are already familiar with many of these rituals, then they are easier to spot again and to understand. Or if you are familiar with rituals from psychological, sociological, anthropological, pedagogical or business theory, then identifying and deciphering the meanings of them will be easier because of that framework for identifying patterns. Otherwise, you are in the thick of things, already with cognitive functions overtaxed, and trying to identify and decode numbers of different patterns and discern what is being signified, and what the appropriate responses are supposed to be. It’s very fatiguing, on a number of levels.

If you have gone through several similar changes before, then you have built up something of a meta-analysis for figuring out how to pattern and decode new situations. But even with having that meta-analysis, there is still the daily requirement to be able to identify and collect the data and analyse it. Hour after hour, day after day. Oh, and look perky and be friendly and master the new job routine and demonstrate that Yes, you are indeed a person who will be able to do the job well. If only you could have next month’s level of competency today!


I’ve blogged about having to compensate for various problems. We all compensate for things, because nobody can do everything. The weird thing is that society does not deem such inabilities as problems, and does not even view the alternatives as being compensating strategies. For example, I get the maintenance and repairs on my car done at a service station, but that’s considered “normal”. Having problems understanding voice-mail and asking for everything sent by post used to be considered somewhat abnormal, but nowadays cultural norms have changed and asking for text-messaging or e-mail instead is considered to be normal.

But not everyone has to compensate for the same things, and frequently the things being compensated for are not apparent. But if you are good at compensating, most people don’t realise that you are working much harder to achieve nearly as well. If you “pass for normal” most days, people can’t understand why you “suddenly” having problems when ill or stressed, or are simply trying to compensate for too many things simultaneously.

The problem with compensating is that we rely on the structure of our environments and our habits to help remind us to do things and to provide the supportive framework that reduces stress and allows us to achieve things in different ways. When our schedules are abruptly or unexpectedly changed, this causes stress not only because we are concerned because we don’t know what new things will have to be dealt with, and because we are losing our system of supports.

Attention Switching

Attention switching problems result because there are more activities that require conscious, cognitive processing instead of easier associative processing. A person can only use cognitive processing for one thing at a time, which results in highly focused, “monotropic” thinking. There’s simply not enough mental “RAM” to do high-level multiprocessing from a number of sensory channels, so some kinds of input are perforce less attended to.

Attention-switching can also be difficult because of a strong need for a sense of closure. Even people with AD/HD experience this when they are highly focused on something of interest, especially when previous experience has proven that distractions will result in the idea of the moment simply … evaporating. It’s not that a preoccupied child cannot physically hear a parent call them away from the Legos to come eat dinner (which is sensory processing), but that decoding the meaning of the words gets stuck somewhere in the active memory buffer, and doesn’t always get attention switched to it. Or, the attention-switching has a lag time while the current thought is being completed.

Oh jeez, it’s time for me to leave and meet people at a restaurant for dinner!

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