Desire for Sameness: The Autism Files

Desire for Sameness: The Autism Files

People with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) like things to stay the same. And don’t I know it!

Michael’s diagnosis of Autism arrived shortly after his third birthday, but the signs were there shortly after birth. These included maniacal screaming fits at all times of the day and night, the obsessive systematic sorting of shoes and books (recorded on video if anyone needs verification), the lining up of tin cans, cars and trains, the absence of speech followed then by echolalia, the inability to wave or greet anyone, the spinning, the intense interest in fans, planes, wheels, water and light switches.

Another sign was the need for things to stay the same, including an intense dislike of any change to routines. I’ll give you an example which occurred when Michael was a toddler. I hate to admit it but I used to watch the soap opera Neighbours religiously. I have since ceased this irritating habit. Michael loved the theme song to Neighbours and when the song came on he would turn to the television, smiling broadly and sometimes clap his hands in glee.

The producers of Neighbours, in their wisdom, decided to modify the theme song. It was such a minor change that most people would not have noticed. But Michael noticed and he roared his displeasure, every night for at least a week. We were suitably amused by this display of loyalty to the original tune, completely oblivious to the underlying reason for his outrage.

Michael has always had a good ear for music and exceptional tastes that closely mirror my own. His little sister Tessa would disagree with that statement (see blog post on Bob Dylan). I am not a huge fan of rave music but I took a bit of liking to musician Fatboy Slim while undertaking research into Dance Parties for Queensland Health.  One day I made the mistake of playing the DJ’s album You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby in my car. Michael absolutely loved the song Funk Soul Brother. He insisted I play the tune in the car every trip for at least 6 months. Any refusal resulted in the volcanic eruption phenomenon.

Michael also insisted on wearing the same shirt every day to the AEIOU. It was a blue t-shirt with Nemo on the front. I would wash it every night to avoid the inevitable tantrum if it wasn’t available. It is very common for ASD children and adults to regularly wear the same type of clothes. The reasons are mainly to do with sensory/sensitivity issues (the need for soft well worn clothes that don’t feel itchy and scratchy), rigidity and the need for things to stay the same.

The need for sameness also impacts at the dinner table and many ASD children, including my son, have extreme rituals surrounding the types of food they will eat and it’s presentation. This can drive parents insane. I will discuss food in greater detail in further blogs.

Why the need for sameness?

I will end this blog with a quote from Sean Barron who has ASD:

I have no idea how many ways there are to deal with a level of fear so great that is hangs over you like a storm cloud. The three remedies I chose and that made the most sense to me in all areas of my life were repetition, repetition and repetition (Grandin and Barron 2005, p. 85)


Grandin, T., and Barron, S. (2005) Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships: Decoding Social Mysteries Through the Unique Perspectives of Autism. Arlington, TX: Future Horizons.

Invisible Straitjacket – the Autism Files

Invisible Straitjacket – the Autism Files

Most people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) don’t like changes in their routines. It is all about rules, regulations, and order. This can be because they experience the world as confusing and chaotic, and it is their way of clawing back some sense of control. They like the predictability that a routine provides. If you know the end of the story you can relax and pay more attention to what is going on in the middle. People with autism call ‘normal’ people Neurotypicals (nt’s). Nt’s generally don’t like to know the end of the story – we like a surprise. You could say that I am the opposite of a person with autism – I don’t like routine and rules and will change my schedule at the drop of a hat depending on my mood.

My son Michael was diagnosed with autism a couple of months after turning three. He  was lucky to soon get into the AEIOU – an intensive early intervention program in Brisbane for young children with autism. This was very stressful for him – a new place, new routine, and having to deal with other children with autism (they were often noisy and upset).He went there for 5 days a week and I drove him from the suburb of Auchenflower to Moorooka (a trip that took about 40 minutes). You have to think carefully about how you do things with ASD children because once you do it one way, you usually have to keep doing it that way. For Michael this applied to the route taken to and from the AEIOU. It was very important to Michael that I drive the same way every day. Any deviations would result in a tantrum or meltdown; a situation that can be very dangerous in a moving vehicle.

A couple of weeks after he started at the AEIOU I was driving Michael home from Moorooka. My daughter Tessa was two and she was also in the car. I wasn’t concentrating, it was raining heavily and my head was in the clouds, and I missed the usual turn-off on the freeway. What followed could be described as the beginning of World War 3 – Michael went ballistic. He screamed and carried on for the whole trip home. In the car he took his seatbelt off and was attacking me while I was driving. Being a responsible and thoughtful psychologist I immediately lost the plot and was screaming at him to stop. Poor Tessa didn’t know what the hell was happening and was crying. I kept driving as it was too dangerous to stop in the rain and on a freeway.

We finally got home safely, I don’t know how we did it, and Michael was still tantruming. God knows what the neighbours thought was happening. I got Tessa into the house and had to drag Michael screaming and kicking out of the car. Once inside I locked the doors because Michael was trying to get outside. He was punching and kicking the doors. I took Tessa upstairs – we often had to escape from Michael in those days – and left Michael to calm down by himself. This was a strategy that worked most of the time but not this time. He kept screaming so I carried him upstairs, put him on the sofa and wrapped him up in a doona and squeezed him hard. Like many children with ASD he likes the feeling of deep pressure on his body and it has a calming affect on him. Eventually he calmed down and stopped crying. The tantrum had lasted for about 3 hours. All because I drove the wrong way home!

PS.     Michael turns nine at the end of this month and is doing extremely well. He certainly doesn’t tantrum like that anymore. This is partly because of the wonderful work done by the AEIOU. Thank you to all the dedicated staff of the AEIOU and founder Dr James Morton. The photo is of a sunflower that Michael grew from seeds provided by his learning support teacher Kerri at Holy Family school  in Indooroopilly.