Perseveration and difficulties with change

It’s been a while since I wrote a blog post. It’s not that I don’t have anything to say – I’ve thought of all kinds of topics to write about, and planned them in my mind, but somehow the actual act of getting myself to sit down and writing them seemed hard. Not that I find it hard to actually write blog posts – I like to write them – but what is hard is the actual switch from whatever I’m doing to something different.

As this is a common aspect of Aspergers, I decided I might as well write a post about it – as a way of both explaining my absence and illustrating why people on the autistic spectrum have difficulties with organisation, and why the ‘perseveration’ thing happens.

I’d never actually heard the term ‘perseveration’ until I started reading about autism and Asperger Syndrome, and then I immediately knew what was being described. I can illustrate in by talking about the past couple of weeks.

Once I started doing the ‘100 things’ strategy described in my last post, I became focused on organisation. I started planning my meals for the week too, which got me thinking about health, and starting to plan exercise. I started keeping a journal to keep track of all I do each day, dividing my life into various categories, such as ‘house’, ‘food’, ‘exercise’, ‘finance’, ‘relaxation’, etc. This became the focus of my life for a few days – I had to be constantly aware of it for it to work, and in order to be constantly aware of it, I had to focus my mind on it to the exclusion of all else.

Then I started going for walks in the woodlands and in the moors. This seemed a logical way of combining the categories of enjoyment, relaxation and exercise, because I really enjoy such walks. Once I started, I would walk for hours and hours, so walking became the focus of my days. I started taking photographs of the trees, because I love trees – their shapes fascinate me. My days became totally focused on woodland walks and capturing them in photographs, and then collecting these photos onto my laptop, cropping them and resizing them. I completely forgot about all other aspects of organisation, and the journal I was keeping. I just remembered it yesterday, and realised I hadn’t written in it for six days.

When I stand back from this, I feel frustrated, because although I love walking in the woodlands and the moors, I don’t want my whole life to consist of that. I also love reading novels, and had actually planned to do some reading. I always took a book along on my walks, thinking I would sit down at some point and read it. But somehow my mind just wouldn’t switch from walking mode to reading mode. I was walking and I would keep on walking. I would sit down sometimes on the walks, to have something to eat, but I wouldn’t read, because reading seemed like a completely different world. The switch from focusing on the walk and the trees to focusing on a book seemed like a vast chasm.

This isn’t to say that I can’t read when on a walk – but to do that, my whole focus would have to be on reading. I’d be oblivious to the beauty of the woodlands and countryside around me. When I was a kid, my focus was often entirely on reading. Wherever I went, I would bring a book and I would read it – read it while walking along, reading when stopping anywhere, etc. – because reading was what occupied my mind.

I’m trying to think of an analogy so people can understand the difficulty switching from one thing to another. It’s kind of like moving to another country on the spur of the moment. For most people who have lived in the same country all their lives, this would be an enormous and difficult transition – because your mind is accustomed to your own country. You have learnt to take many things for granted which would all change if you moved to another country – it would be a huge transition, and would be very difficult to just switch from your life here to moving there. Not just in practical terms, but in mental adjustment.

Interestingly, I moved to Canada for five years when I was 21, and many people said how brave I was, but to me there was nothing unusual about it, because all changes are huge for me. Moving to Canada was no different. Obviously, in practical terms, the actual act of switching from walking to reading is nothing like the act of moving to Canada. There were all kinds of complicated things involved in moving to Canada, like applying to be a student at the university, getting a student visa, organising accommodation, booking a flight, etc. – whereas switching from walking to reading just involves sitting down and taking a book out of my bag, opening it and reading it. But the difficulty is not in the practicalities of the act itself – it’s in the switching of mindset.

This is why people on the autism spectrum often develop special interests. Once we are focused on one thing, it is so much easier to keep focusing on it than to switch to something else. Something else may arise from it, as a side thing, like woodland walks arising from my focus on organisation, but it arises because of a link. It’s much easier to switch naturally to something that is somehow linked than to switch to something which is unrelated. For instance, when on my walks, I started thinking about how I’d like to read some reference books about trees and flowers and insects and birds. If I were to do that, then I would probably start focusing on reading, and then may well start reading novels again. But if I were to just pick up a novel and read it today, I may enjoy it but it would feel disjointed from the rest of my life, unless there was a central theme of my life to which the book related.

This is why life can feel fragmented for people on the autistic spectrum. We often lack a sense of overall cohesion – ‘central coherence’ – so we find one thing to focus on, and somehow everything else needs to relate to this.

Understanding this can help with devising strategies. For children on the autistic spectrum, who have various activities organised by adults, it would be helpful to find some way of linking the activities, so there is not the uncomfortable jolt of switching from one to the other. For instance, as a kid, I would never want to go to bed when it was bedtime. This was because my mind was focused on whatever I was doing, and couldn’t make the switch to going to bed, which was, to use my analogy, like moving to another country. What would happen is that my mother would get angry, which didn’t help, because it became a fight, which made me even less inclined to relax and quieten for bed.

It occurs to me in retrospect that if instead there had been some kind of link, and routine, it would have been easier. It’s hard to know exactly what would have worked, but it occurs to me that maybe if lights had been dimmed, and soft relaxing music been played, or maybe a scented candle burnt (out of reach, for safety) at a certain time, then this might have somehow prepared my mind to quieten down, and I would have started to associate these sensory cues with going to bed.

I probably could do something like that for myself as an adult too (as I still have a lot of difficulty going to bed at a regular time) – although then I’d be responsible for the cues myself, so I’d have to somehow find a way of making myself do them at the right time. I’m still trying to work this out in my mind, so I have no definite strategies, but I will experiment with trying to find something that works. Maybe having an alarm clock go off at a certain time in the evening when I want to start preparing my mind for bed time – and putting the alarm clock by my aromatherapy oil burner, as a cue for lighting it, and that could act as a cue for dimming lights. I will try this and if it works, I’ll write another post about it.



  1. I have been having issues with this very thing in recent years. As I look back, I was inclined to this type of behavior to a much lesser degree. Not in focus, certainly, but it was less difficult to change to a different activity. Perhaps because for years, I always prepared schedules and kept a routine, it was much simpler to transition from one thing to another.

    Thanks for addressing this. It reminds me, again for the 3rd time in 2 weeks, that I need to make a tighter and more detailed schedule for myself.

  2. Yes, I know just what you’re talking about. With Butterfly it happens all the time with food. She’ll try something new from time to time, and if she likes it, she wants it almost exclusively … almost until she becomes sick of it. I encourage her to have the other things she likes too, but no, she’s found something new, and that’s what she wants. It leaves me scrambling for something else new, or a twist on a old fave, just to get a little variety in her diet. Of course, the free spirit in me wants to encourage you to just enjoy your walks and not be so hard on yourself, but yeah, I see your struggle, and I think your idea about cueing yourself, with one thing leading to another, may very well work. Looking for your next post. 🙂

  3. Again, I relate very much. I may have said this is a previous comment but I recently wrote on Facebook about how I perseverate and that I have done so much better in my life when someone else sets a schedule for me but, ironically, I hate for other people to tell me what to do.

    I recently just up and moved to Australia from the United States and people say I am brave and I don’t feel brave at all. I mapped everything ahead of time, airports and trains, and made myself mentally prepared so that I kind of ‘knew’ ahead of time the places that I didn’t actually know. Google Street View is a wonderful thing.

    On the flip side of that, it is difficult in that I can’t just run through a grocery store with it mapped out in my head and knowing exactly where what I want is. The boyfriend is subjected to doing almost all of the shopping though I can handle the little market store down the street.

    As I am in a big city, I spend a lot of time walking in the cemetery near here which is huge and wooded and where I don’t have to be around live people. I bring a book but also usually can’t switch from walking mode to reading mode. I have forced myself to occasionally switch to photography mode because otherwise I get harassed by family back home about not posting photos for them to see.

    Sorry if I seemed pushy about commenting that you hadn’t written in a while. It was simply concern because when I don’t write it is usually because I am falling into a depression. I learned a long time ago that I feel better if I make myself start writing and get the things in my head down on cyber-paper.

    Sorry for the hugely long comment. Maybe I should start my own girl Aspie blog, but mostly it is just so wonderful to read someone to whom I relate so well. Thank you.


  4. Can so, *so* relate to this. In adolescence to early thirties, it was SF and fantasy TV shows and books. It still is, in some ways, because that’s related to the major interest of my life, but at the moment, I don’t really have anything in particular I perseverate on… and maybe that’s part of the problem. I’ve not been at my best over the last several months, because of some bad side-effects from medication (people, if you or your kids are on the spectrum and have depression which needs SNRIs – *don’t* get Effexor or one of its generics. It’s contraindicated for people on the spectrum, and I spent 4 months with the medication’s side effects making me feel worse than what it was supposed to solve; I still have to finish getting it out of my system), so I haven’t been able to focus properly.

    But, like Laura said in the post above, I’m thinking that if I *do* have a current perseveration, it’s most likely ASD!

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