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Neurodiversity and Mental Health: Using Routine as a Map to Regulation and Self-care

I’ve always needed things to be the way I need them to be. Insistently. Demandingly. Holding my sanity hostage. For if things aren’t the way I need them to be, I’ll have a meltdown. And if too many things aren’t the way I need them to be, a breakdown.

This is something I couldn’t describe when I was younger and I’ve had to learn to navigate now that I’m older. I’ve always been considered picky or particular. My need for things to be a certain way coming across to others as spoiled or high-maintenance. But really, I just need things to be a certain way to be able to function. Which is why for everything I do, I have my own way of doing it. My own routine.

My routines are sacred to me. What I nurture and cultivate. Attempt to adhere to at all times. It is difficult for me to do things outside of my routines. Like speak. Eat. Move. Interact. Do something out of the order I was planning to do it in. Even getting into and out of my routines is difficult. Which is probably why morning and evening routines are the most challenging for me. Task-switching that may be easy for many, but not for me. And as it seems, not for the neurodivergent in general. I need routine so my body knows what to do. So I am able to practice self-care. So I can keep myself regulated.

Routine as a Map

Girl with map
Photo by Elio Santos on Unsplash

Routine is a map for my body to follow. Giving it direction. Pointing out areas of self-care. Guiding it toward being regulated. Less out of control. Less likely to be over- or underwhelmed. Because it knows what lies ahead. If I can’t follow a routine, then my body is thrown off course, causing it to be unregulated. For example, for two weeks in a row, I had obligations on Mondays. Something I try to avoid, but it couldn’t be helped. Because my routine was off on Monday, the day that establishes the direction for the entire week, I found it difficult to resume my routine on Tuesday. Then Tuesdays felt like Mondays and Wednesdays felt like Tuesdays and my whole week was off. My thoughts were scattered and my body didn’t know what to do with itself. I was completely unregulated for weeks. Because my body was expecting something else. It was craving my routine.

I have a routine for everything I do. For getting up in the morning, for working, for going to bed at night. I even have a routine for greeting people. For going places. For being in my car. For following my sensory diet. Basically for everything I do, I have my own way of doing it. And when something gets in my way or disrupts my routine, it becomes difficult for me to function.

For example, when I wake up, I wash up, meditate, and drink my tea while writing and using my weighted blanket. If I have to be somewhere earlier in the day, I still need to do these things. So my body knows what to do for the rest of the day. Days I wake up late and have to rush out the door and all or part of my routine is missed, I forget things. Feel scrambled. Have panic attacks and meltdowns. I am off my path the entire day. And my ability to take care of myself goes along with it.

While working, I read and write in the morning and check my email and complete logistical tasks in the afternoon. When I used to have jobs that would require me to do things on their time, like take meetings at random times, for example, I was a wreck. I’d feel sick and unable to function. My productivity and interactions would suffer. Then I would push myself and eventually have a meltdown. All because I was out of my routine.

When I go to bed at night, I drink my tea and take my magnesium supplement. I watch TV. I do yoga. I apply my essential oils. Then I go to bed. It takes me about two hours to complete this routine in order to unwind from the day. If someone else is around or if my husband stays up late, my routine is completely thrown off. I either can’t fall asleep or I only sleep a few hours before I’m up again. Or I stay awake until I’m alone, still needing to complete my two-hour unwinding routine. My body doesn’t settle enough to sleep if I’m not in a routine. It doesn’t know what to do.

Don’t Veer Off Course

Following a routine also keeps my mind from spiraling out of control. From veering off course. For without routine, my thoughts pile up. Become a mangled mess. I begin dwelling on all the reasons I’m overwhelmed as they repeat in my head. And I have nowhere to put them. Getting back into a routine puts everything back in its place. I automatically self-soothe when I’m back in a routine. When I’m back on my path. Because I know how to take care of myself. I know what comes next. 

There is a beautiful example of what happens to the neurodivergent when a routine isn’t followed in the movie Tully. As Charlize Theron’s character is dropping her kids off at school, her young son insists she park in the lot they always park in. Theron’s character gently tells him they can’t because that lot is full, which causes him to have a meltdown. He begins kicking the back of her seat and panicking. Theron’s character eventually gives in and parks in the lot her son desires, thus making the meltdown cease. This example demonstrates that it’s not the son being spoiled or inappropriate (as those who don’t know better might think), but that he is reacting to his routine being disrupted. Something the child actor shows well. In the movie, they don’t go into detail about why the son needs to park in the same lot, but they don’t have to. For some neurodivergent, this is simply the way it goes.

I too need to park in the same spots (and the same lots) when I go places. For me, it’s so I know where my car is when I leave, but it’s also because it just feels right. And parking somewhere else feels wrong. It’s almost like a bit of my energy is already there, telling me where I’m at. Leaving a body memory as breadcrumbs for me to retrace my steps. A map to follow. Helping me feel safe. Letting my body know that everything is okay.

Just as not following my routine is a bad idea, taking days off from my routine isn’t good either. Unless I have another routine to replace it with. Like on the weekends, for example. On Saturday mornings, I typically follow the same routine as during the weekdays, but I let myself watch TV as a treat instead of reading and writing. If my husband skips the gym and wants to hang out right when I wake up, I become easily overwhelmed. If I get caught up talking about plans for the day or discussing something on the news, I will most likely have a meltdown. My husband knows this about me by now, so he gives me time to wake up. Only then am I ready to interact. On Sunday mornings, though, my husband and I read the paper and have breakfast together. It’s a change I can handle because it is an established routine. It’s really all about the routine.

A Guide to Thinking Clearly

If I’m in a routine, I don’t have to think as much. My body automatically knows what to do. So if my thoughts are distracted, I still do what needs to be done. A survival technique, if you will. My routines remind me to eat and to drink water. To move and to exercise. To put one foot in front of the other on difficult days. To practice self-care.

Like when I’m in the shower. For some reason, being in the shower is when I have some of my most creative thoughts. Which makes me absent-minded. I’m literally an absent-minded professor. If I don’t have a routine, I may miss something. Or mess something up. Like forget to wash my body. Or use conditioner in my hair instead of shampoo. Things I used to do often when my body didn’t have any direction. A direction my body can rely on each time. A direction that makes sense for my body. A routine.

So maybe routines aren’t the negative, rigid, obsessive-compulsive paths that we’re taught to think they are, but, rather, they are a map. A guide. An evolutionary way of doing what one needs to do in order to survive.

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Neurodiversity and Mental Health: Using Routine as a Map to Regulation and Self-care

Jenna Grace

Jenna Grace is a writer and educator with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), sensory processing disorder (SPD), premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), social anxiety disorder (SAD) and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) diagnoses. She writes and speaks about topics including healing from trauma, coping with neurological disorder and practicing mindfulness in order to help others and to explore new meaning. Visit her website for more of her stories.

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APA Reference
Grace, J. (2019). Neurodiversity and Mental Health: Using Routine as a Map to Regulation and Self-care. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 5, 2020, from


Last updated: 23 May 2019
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