3rd September 2020 • Emma Cooper
Happy September all! I can’t quite get my head around the fact we are this far through the year? I don’t know about you, but to me it still feels as if we are in March.
As an autistic adult, daily routines help me know ‘where I am’ in the world. With COVID, the majority of us have found our daily, weekly, monthly and even seasonal routines have gone out the window and I am sure many more non-autistic people can better imagine how it feels to have your sense of self, place and time and space differ when your routines are interrupted.
How routine helps us
Routines matter to us all and with clever organisation they can usually be maintained no matter what.
I have a fond memory of one of my daughters having a routine of watching Police, Camera, Action! on TV before bed. It was a fly-on-the-wall type documentary following the day-to-day life and work of UK police officers. It often ended in an M25 car chase and the police dogs capturing the criminal.
When we went to Amsterdam to visit Anne Frank’s house, it got to bedtime and I was panicking as I didn’t have Police, Camera, Action! to rely on in Holland! Luckily, after flicking through many hundreds of TV channels in our hotel room (not a wise thing to attempt in Amsterdam, I can tell you) I managed to find a Dutch version of the show. It was not in English, but it followed the same formula: car chase, dogs out, criminal arrested and SLEEP!
We all have routines even if we aren’t autistic or don’t have a disability. It’s just that for autistic people, our routines may be more intense, hourly rather than daily, harder to navigate, or cause much more distress to us if they have to change.
Keeping us grounded
Everyone has a certain place they would rather sit in a restaurant, a food shop they prefer to shop in, a hairdresser they would rather visit. We have certain days of the week we like as our day off, and a place we take the dog to walk more than others. It helps us keep our compass.
Many of us have had to adapt our routines over the last few months, and now that has changed, with workplaces and schools returning, it’s going to seem strange for a while.
When I was studying social sciences in my 20s, the university lecturer taught us how much of our sense of self, our identity and self-esteem is attached to our work roles. Work of whatever level means more to us than a uniform, it becomes part of us. It affects not only how others see us but, more importantly, how we see ourselves.
Since March, the suits have been left in their dry cleaning wrapper in the wardrobe, replaced by tracksuits; the dresses used for business have been replaced with something stained so you don’t mind if the children’s paint and home ed crafts get splattered on it; the hair straighteners that made you feel ready to face the day have been rendered pointless as nobody has seen you.
Perhaps it’s the friendly staff you met at the shop you’d buy your lunch in every day, or even the parents you could scrape a 10-minute catch up with outside the school gates at 3pm each day? Everything has changed. In turn, so have we, so has how we feel and view ourselves in the context of the wider world.
Accepting your normal
My thoughts are also with the parents who, just as they do every September, feel their family’s needs differ dramatically to others’.
There is unique emotion felt when social media is a tsunami of back-to-school photos and your child cannot access school. A guilty feeling if your child is in school but not flourishing when the GCSE and A level grades are announced. A dread that fills our every hour when our hearts and heads are torn between work and home. I get it, whatever path you choose for your family and your own set of unique playing cards, there is no easy option.
We often don’t realise until things change just how unique the hand of cards we have is.
I can recall being around a friend’s house and seeing their then 4 year old take themselves upstairs to return 10 minutes later washed, teeth brushed and in their PJs when that is something that had never happened with my much, much older child.
I can remember the jolt of realisation that perhaps OUR normal wasn’t AT ALL normal, but I had just accepted our way of living so much day in, day out that now normal seemed anything but?
It made me kinder to myself too. If that is the level of parenting expectation by one household, how could I ever compare my own household and parenting expectations to another again? If you can’t compare one household to another, why should I ever feel like I’m failing again, when the blueprint design of milestones, rules and behaviour is so wildly different.
It was liberating. I hope you too have a sense of ‘actually my experiences are different and valid’ too; particularly as we move into a new academic year.
I hope that your child’s return to education and your return to work as parents, however much loss has occurred, be it financially or emotionally, you have the confidence to know how you’re feeling is natural and that it isn’t just you feeling this way. Many people, be it a child, an apprentice, a manager or a CEO will need kindness and space to find their identity and place in their personal and work worlds again.