Toward Robust Defaults
I’m not sure where I found it (I wish there were an easy to way to save an attribution when saving something to Instapaper), but for a few days now I’ve been mulling over Derek Kedziora’s thinking about things in terms of defaults instead of habits.
A habit is something that’s always there, every single day. Missing a day or two breaks your streak and sets you back at zero. Even making the commitment to start a habit can be daunting — meditating every day, never drinking alcohol again, waking up early every morning, it feels easier to never even start.
A default is just how you do things, unless you have some reason not to do it that way. There’s no shame, no failure if you don’t pick the default option. That said, it’s worth monitoring and seeing if you need to reset the default or make a conscious change.
As an actually-autistic person, I had to let this one stew a bit before I got into it here. It’s considered part of the pathology of autism that it presents with what are known as RRBs: restrictive and repetitive behaviors, interests, and activities. While this encompasses a broad range of things, I’m thinking here specifically of how autistics frequently are known for what normatively might be considered rigid habits.
There are so many common such predictable structures autistics build for the sake of their own cognitive sanity that some even have picked up their own autistic colloquials, e.g. samefood.
What I find interesting about the counter-idea of defaults is that it offers something of a reset in understanding how these predictable structures operate for autistic people. I’m speaking here mostly of autistics in the general vicinity of my own constellation of autistic traits (or autistic feature set). There are, of course, any number of autistic people for whom most any deviation from predictable structure will illicit a meltdown; others, like me, have more capacity for adaptability even if that capacity itself comes with its own kinds of constraints.
At any rate, I started to think about the idea of what I’m calling robust defaults rather than rigid habits.
Rigidity suggests a level of utter inflexibility in behavior that just can’t be assumed of all autistic people, even if from the normative outside it superficially seems utterly inflexible. Robustness, on the other hand, suggests some obvious degree of intentionality and construction. It’s not always about our brain’s innate responses to stimuli; sometimes it’s about the structures we’ve consciously put into place over time in order to deal with that stimuli—in fact, to help head off the potential for the implosion of shutdown or the explosion of meltdown which can occur absent such dependable structure.
Rigidity assumes that autistics always are at the mercy of the innate mismatch that can exist between our brains and the stimuli with which it must deal. Robustness implicates the possibility that our brains do have some ability to adapt, and also the reality that we’re regularly (if not constantly) creating and managing deliberate strategies to navigate that mismatch.
Rigid habits are something that’s easy to pathologize and therefore target for “correction”. Robust defaults flip the script and put the onus on others to justify their critique or judgment.
Happenstantially, this sort of walks backward into this page about the so-called “introvert hangover”. Longtime readers will know that more than once I’ve talked about how, long before I was diagnosed as autistic, I’d assembled something of an “introvert’s toolkit” that, in fact and as we now know after the fact, helped accommodate or mitigate my then-undiagnosed autism.
(The usual disclaimer applies here: autistics are not all introverts; there unquestionably are extroverted autistics. I only can speak here about my own experience.)
Admittedly, I laughed a bit reading about “introvert hangover” because I’m not entirely convinced that all of what’s discussed is an introversion thing. I think some of what they’re talking about here likely is undiagnosed autism. I’m not sure it’s true that “introverts also tend to be overstimulated by loud and chaotic environments”, and while it’s true of such a hangover that “consecutive days of feeling this way can really take a toll”, if it’s lasting for days and “it can be hard to get out of bed in the morning because it simply takes too much energy” I really do not think this is introversion we are talking about.
At any rate, I brought this up because autistics do have to manage both their social budget and their sensory one, and in my case both pre- and post-diagnosis my ways of doing so technically could be pathologized as rigid habits.
Once upon a time, I attended events like small-venue concerts or large-venue pop culture conventions. These things require preparation, like going on a social and sensory fast in the days leading up to them. Concerts can require days of recovery, where you might “rigidly” refuse any and all outside contact or activity. When I used to attend San Diego Comic-Con, it only was possible if I had a hotel room to myself (both a social and sensory escape) and had self-designated “safe zones” even on the busy show floor where I knew enough people to be able to linger without seeming creepy. Every day, before hitting the con, I’d go to one or two usual places for breakfast alone.
These were not rigid habits. They were robust defaults which enabled me to engage with the outside world either on my own terms or which gave me avenues of recovery after dealing with the world on its demanding terms.
Autistics like me tend to have days that mostly look the same. It’s not that we can’t ever deviate from that routine. It’s that the routine acts to conserve resources, making them available for more confounding and less predictable stimuli. Mostly, I sleep until late morning, linger in bed culling things from the web to read later, get up, wash up, get dressed, have breakfast, watch some television, have lunch, go out to read a book over a latte at a neighborhood coffeeshop, come home (maybe a grocery errand on the way), and settling in for dinner and more television. Each meal mostly is the same one I had at that time the day before.
This sort of deliberately programmed structure means that every now and then I can summon the resources to take public transit all the way across town to walk around the zoo. It also means I might possibly have the capacity to help my former nonprofit with the unfortunate loss of one of their goats even though that’s an entirely unexpected and unpredictable stimulus. Even then, these “exceptions” to the defaults come with time needed for recovery.
I’ve talked before (more than once) about how some of what’s pathologized about autism in fact might be adaptations of the wily autistic brain to the difficult mismatches it encounters between itself and outside stimuli. I think this mostly, or at least potentially, is true of so-called RRBs.
Words do matter, and I think reconceiving rigid habits into robust defaults does something a little bit dramatic, turning the idea of autistic brains as innate reaction machines always at the mercy of outside stimulus into the idea of autistic brains as active authors of stimulus management and resource conservation.
One other thing about words, beyond the fact that I think for many people the label “introverted” is covering for a deeper neurodivergence of which they shouldn’t be afraid.
It’s unfortunate that Kedziora shies away from the terms “depression and anxiety” simply because he doesn’t identify with “the stories and communities surrounding those labels”. The stigma loses out only when we insist that whoever we are, we, too, are a part of the story of anxiety and depression.
Neither of these things are about “being powerless”, and arguably the first power we have over things is the naming of them.