February 18, 2021

Autism and transitioning between tasks

By rosieweldon

A week or so ago I was sat playing a card/counter game with my partner. She offered for me to go first and as usual I refused. She jokingly asked if it was part of my strategy to let her go first to see where she put her counter. I answered that it wasn’t that I didn’t want to go first, I just – and stopped.

She smiled and said, ‘I know’ and played her counter.

It’s not uncommon for my partner to pick things up or understand things about myself, before I do. I realised she knew why I didn’t like to go first, before I had even realised it was something I struggled with.

To go first means to push through an uncomfortable feeling. To go second is to follow her lead and play the game. But why? Why does it make me feel uncomfortable to play the first move in a game?

As we played, I went over the feeling it gave me. It hit me that it wasn’t so much about playing a move, it was about initiating the start of a game. The start of a new task. Shifting our attention to the board and setting a new sequence of events in motion. It’s not a hugely distressful feeling and it is one I could push through. But it is unsettling to make the first move and I much prefer my partner to start the game.

I knew autistic people struggle with transitions, but I always thought of the big ones. Transitioning from school to work, from one school to another. I have never really stopped to consider the small transitions that occur every day. How many of them do I push through each day? A small yet very present feeling of discomfort to initiate a task.

When I start a conversation, I have a tendency to skirt around the topic before saying what I want to say. I always thought this was my way of trying to find the words. But I don’t think it is. I think it is actually my way of building into a situation gradually, rather than a sharp change of focus. I try to connect it to something already relevant, or a conversation we have already had, to make it easier to say.

Entering rooms is a significant challenge of mine. Even within a house I am very comfortable in, there is a transition that occurs. My partner noticed that I click my fingers when I walk up or down the stairs. Weeks ago, she mentioned she thinks it’s because I’m letting out the feeling of transitioning from upstairs to downstairs, or vice versa. I do the same when I leave or enter a building. These aren’t things that I see as daily challenges but in a way they are. They are things non-autistic people might not need mental energy for – but autistic people do.

Entering a known room is a transition for me. That’s with being able to see into the new room I am entering. If the door happens to be shut, that then becomes a challenging situation. I have walked down the stairs to a shut kitchen door and turned to go back upstairs because I can’t seem to process opening the door. I can hear them on the other side, I know it’s not shut for a reason – nor that I can’t enter. But the door makes that kitchen an unknown room. I can’t see it and the thought of opening a door and having to process the situation in a second is daunting.

After that card game I decided to write this blog. I have spent the last week or so actively thinking about how transitions affect me. It’s pretty clear that initiating anything is difficult for me. Starting to make a meal. Starting a conversation. Any shift in gears feels like it’s grinding at me. I have to force myself to shift tracks and however big or small the shift is, it has its effect on me. Whether I turn away from the shut door, decide not to make toast, click my fingers or turn down going first – problems with starting or shifting tasks are present in more of my everyday life than I thought.

How can you help an autistic person with this?
I think the key is patience, preparation and understanding.
Preparation – An unknown email that needs suddenly responding to makes it very difficult to switch gears and deal with it. A known process change I can anticipate and get ready to shift over to.

Understanding – I have had a mentally draining week. I walked down to get toast one day, looked at the toaster, realised I couldn’t get my mind to get to the next step, and went back upstairs to work. I couldn’t get my mind to shift to making toast and what that meant I needed to do. Not long after I went back upstairs, my partner brought me toast up. It’s not laziness, it’s a genuine difficulty carrying out the task.

Patience – Sometimes it can take me a while to initiate something. From knocking a door to getting out what I want to say. The best thing you can do for me is show me patience and let me go at my own pace.

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