I once attended a small meeting for the parents of autistic children at a local elementary school. Meetings of this kind were held once a month, and were put on by the school’s special education program to give tips to parents on how to help their autistic children. On the day I attended, there were only four people at the meeting. There usually would have been more, but it was a busy week so it was just me, a special education teacher and two mothers.

One mother was talking about how she and her husband wanted their son to go see a movie. He is autistic, and so that kind of new experience—the change of lighting and the loud noises and the expectation of quiet during the movie—was scary for them. She explained how they began to prepare him by setting up a home theater that would be as close to the real experience as possible. 

They guided him through the process of going to the movies. They got buckets of popcorn, projected the movie onto the wall and simulated the surround sound experience with speakers. They even practiced the admissions process with fake tickets that their son handed to a pretend usher. By the time this family went to the see the long anticipated movie, their son had practiced this process multiple times: he knew what to expect.

When listening to this mother, I saw bits and pieces of my own family in hers. The way my mother would talk me through a new situation—the first day of school, a play date with a new friend, a trip to see a musical—before it happened, so that I didn’t feel as anxious about the newness of it all. We would talk in the car before going into Walmart so that I knew to be prepared for loud noises. We would talk before we arrived at a concert so that I knew to be prepared for the crowd. The home movie experience that this mother had set up for her child was not unlike the preparatory steps that my own family had taken to make me more comfortable.

For the autistic, the world is chaotic—a tumultuous frenzy of purposeless activities. To be able to have and maintain expectations for how things are going to happen is a vital way that we as autistic people cope with the world around us. From a chaotic and senseless world, we forge stability.

Much of my life in college is centered on being able to anticipate the day’s activities. I go to classes at the same times each week, I go to meals at the same times each week, I go to work at the same times each week. I tread and retread the same paths whenever and wherever I can because in this repetition lies predictability, and predictability comforts me. Even when I do want to try something new—to go on a mini-adventure with my friends or do a little something special for a loved one—I know that I can always fall back on my routines as a way to calm myself: an ever-present safety net of familiarity.