I have vivid memories of washing my hair at my mother's insistence with the icy water from a pump when we went camping as a girl. It was only recently that she capitulated that cleaning my hair outdoors on days when we could see our breath was probably neither necessary or sensible. As much as I dredded the experience and the inevitable headache that would follow, I understand why she subjected me to this miserable routine.
I have my own rituals after all. I have rituals for paying bills. And banking. And using public restrooms. And shopping. And going to restaraunts in the rare anxiety provoking case that I am forced to eat out. If I don't follow these prescribed steps exactly, then something doesn't end well. Just today someone offered to take my grocery cart as I was leaving Aldi's. I'm sure she thought it would make it easier for me and faster for her if she gave me her quarter and saved me the trouble of hooking my cart back up while she waited in line for her turn to unhook the same cart. But that is not how it turned out. Suddenly my steps were out of order and I stood there with a premature quarter in my hand, trying to put it into my coin purse while she waited patiently for me to grab my grocery bag out of the cart. In trying to negotiate my handbag, the coinpurse, my keys, an umbrella and the quarter, I had forgetten completely about my groceries. If she hadn't handed the bag to me, I would have headed for my car without it. For the onlooker, I'm sure my routines look odd and unecessary. For me, they help to ensure I don't miss any important steps.
The "experts" categorize autistic routines or what they describe as "Insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns of verbal or nonverbal behavior" as maladaptive or pathelogical behaviors largely without any useful function. I don't agree with them. If someone has developed an inflexible adherence to routines or ritualized patterns they have a good reason. Onlookers may not be privy to this reason but the behavior is serving a purpose.
Perhaps, like me, they are so overwhelmed with the sensory feedback and have trouble managing multiple steps requiring multiple items in such an overstimulating environment, that they have established a predictable order to ensure successful execution of the necessary tasks.
Perhaps, the repetition is a useful tool to help them understand or learn particular skills such as communication. Perhaps the behavior serves to ease the pain of some physical or emotional discomfort. Or it is possible they simply take pleasure in the repetition the way some people take pleasure in mindless gossip. In any case,
these prescribed routines help to make life predictable,
run more smoothly and ease anxiety.
Rather than trying to break a person of their propensity for routines and make them more flexible it makes sense to figure out the underlying function or cause that lead to establishing the routine in the first place. Once any underlying issues are successfully addressed, the need for strict adherence to routine and ritualized behaviors usually diminish on their own.