Just Follow the Rules!

It bothers me that the newer (young) employees at my job don’t do things correctly, such as consistently prepare THREE napkins for each pile to put in the customer’s bag. Sometimes they do three, sometime four, or two, or *gasp*… one! I was scolding myself for getting upset about it and for wasting my time redoing the piles. As I do, I asked myself why? Why does it bother me? Why am I bothered about being bothered?

Since learning about autism and how every little thing that goes through my head seems to stem from that, now I grasp pretty quickly that is the reason for most things. I realized that I was upset because… I’m autistic. Adherence to rules or ‘the way things should be’ is a sticky point for me. I TRY to “let it go”, but I am immensely irked when other’s don’t follow the rules.

Maybe more than I “should” be?

Ah, there is the answer to the second part. Before, not knowing I was autistic and what that meant for me put a lot of shame on my shoulders for acting or thinking in a way that is not within my control. The rigidity is not “wrong” – it just is. I’m learning to accept it and deal. Being upset at myself for those things is a habit I’m now consciously trying to break. I need to rewrite those programmed reactions.

So, that part of the question was answered and easy enough to move on from, but as I stood there, counting out napkins (3, 3, 3, 3, 3…), I felt just saying ‘I’m autistic’ wasn’t a full answer to why it bothers me when they do those things. Why does not following the proper method of doing something annoy an autistic person? We like rules, methodology, routine and ritual, but why?

I read an explanation once that suggested it was a way to maintain control over something in a world where we have so little control over the things that affect us. The same reason autistic people stim to counteract negative stimuli. For balance. That makes sense and is true to an extent, but it’s more than that too.

I think I understand it. It’s one of those things I’ve always know but never had the language for.

Allow me to digress briefly…

I remember back in school, and you probably do too, many fellow students complaining about learning math that we would “never have to use in real life”. It confused me that they said that. Did they really think it or was that just something kids say and have said forever? It’s not a unique thought by any means so were they saying it to be funny or did they just hear it somewhere else and think they had thought it themselves or that since other people said it, it must be true? Did they say it because it was just one of those things everybody says? (Which is a behaviour I HATE, by the way.)  I didn’t understand it because even though, yeah, we will never use algebraic equations to make a pot of coffee or change a tire, I understood why we needed to learn it.

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I have a memory of being about thirteen years old and trying to explain it to some moron in my class who protested Pythagoras. I told him that by learning these things, we were training our brains to reason more effectively, exercising a muscle, learning problem solving skills that would definitely be needed in our adults lives. (Probably not those words exactly.) He just looked at me funny and continued to lament to our exasperated teacher – who I might add told him, no, you won’t need this information in the future but you have to learn it anyway. Thanks for backing me up, Teach! (Also an idiot.) I was flabbergasted that not only this dumb kid didn’t get it, but the university-educated teacher didn’t seem to either. No one had needed to tell me. I just knew.

Back to the napkins, it’s kind of the same thing. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter if a customer gets 4 napkins instead of 3. One extra here and there isn’t going to break the bank for my boss’s livelihood. 2 instead of 3, the customer probably won’t complain he or she didn’t get enough. Even 1, it’s unlikely Mr. Medium Chicken-No Veggies-Extra Sauce is having an important meeting right after lunch and can’t find adequate paper products to wipe his mouth sufficiently after eating. No, but we put three napkins in a pile, ready to give the customer with a fork for their order to make a good habit. We do 3, 3, 3, 3 without thinking, on autopilot, along with an extensive list of other seemingly arbitrary actions, because when it’s busy, we don’t have the time to think all these things through. We just do it. Many tiny parts keep the larger machine running smoothly.

And for myself, I need to have rules, methodology, routine and rituals in place for the days when it’s not just the world but me that is out of control. For the days I am at my limit and I lose the ability to control my actions and thoughts. On those days, I can’t think about what I need to be doing to stop my whole existence from falling apart. I need to ingrain these mundane habits in myself, rigidly, because my executive functioning (that language I didn’t have before) sucks and I rely on autopilot behaviours to not be in constant chaos.

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(written sometime in late 2016)

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