Following rules is not necessarily important to autistic people, and yet at the same time, some rules are followed pedantically. This post will outline some of the incentives for following rules.
I refrain from following plenty of rules, as they either make no sense to me or bring me no comfort. In that sense, I see rules as guides rather than law. I think this is appropriate, because most rules are not law. It is thus important to question the merit of and intent behind rules.
Note that some rules are designed for safety or to make things easier (think of traffic regulations, or social rules such as going to the back of a line rather than budding in), but many rules are devised to restrict your freedom or your access in some ways. And even rules that are not designed with that intent, often do have that influence.
At 1 am when there are barely any cars around, should I still wait at a traffic light until it turns green before I should cross? Maybe if there are cameras around or if there is a police car near—no need to get myself into unnecessary trouble out of principle. But why be so pedantic about rules that I waste my own time by standing there alone, until a light tells me I can walk again? I would feel stupid for going entirely on auto-pilot, refrain from critical thinking, and blindly follow rules.
Having said that, if the rules make sense, they can offer comfort. It’s interesting to analyze why that actually is.
Sometimes, regulations and what we find comfort in happen to coincide, in which case we may not be so inclined to follow rules out of principle, but merely because they give a framework for what we already want to do. As such, we can justify our actions by pointing at a rule. I think this is in part where our pedantic nature emerges. One must be cautious however to not mistake those rules for law, as to do so would mean we start following rigidly and refrain from critical thinking.
More often than not, however, we derive comfort from following rules. Again, I should say, provided the rules in question make sense to us—although to be fair, in some cases what makes sense to an autistic person will be what the rules dictate, which is to say that some may derive comfort from following rules for the sake of following rules, either because it provides structure or based on the notion that this is what one is supposed to do. I do suspect though that the low-functioning autistic is much more likely to follow rules rigidly and pedantically just on the basis of these being rules. Of course, not every autistic person is trained to consider all their actions, and the underlying reasoning for coming to such actions—especially when it regards routines.
Why we follow rules
I suspect our tendency to be pedantic about rules stems from the fact that we are prone to overstimulation. Consider, if colors are that much more saturated than for non-autistics, and if many things are experienced that much more intensely, would you not find ways to cope with that kind of stimulation? Indeed it is common for autistic people to isolate themselves to a degree, which is one coping mechanism. Another is to establish routines that work for them, because routines reduce the amount of overstimulation as there is less to think about, which means less potential to get dysregulated. Undermine those routines, however, and an autistic person might be prone to react in a negative way, which may be perceived by others as disproportionally intense.
As such, rules provide structure, just as routines provide structure. It is one less thing to think about, just as the traffic light gives you one less thing to think about. It offers structure and guidance, but at the same time, not every rule would make sense to follow pedantically.
One last variant of rule-following worthy of mention is based on an insatiable insistence on correctness, which I think is a common trait in autism. For example:
In the first instance, I used a straight quote (‘), while in the second I used an apostrophe or curly quote (’). Most wouldn’t even notice the difference in running text, but as a typographer, since I learned about the difference, I must insist on using the apostrophe. On my mobile phone, predictive text will often use straight quotes, and generally, I just can’t let it go; I am the only one who will notice, and yet I still go back to correct it to an apostrophe. Does it make my life better? No, it frustrates me every time. There is a comfort I get in having things be correct and “perfect”, and yet at the same time, the process of pedantic rule-following causes me stress as well. The need to follow rules is a neurotic process.
Most frustrating, and yet in a way hilarious as well, is that I acknowledge that to a great degree the correctness I insist on is itself a construction. One may have a debate about whether or not the Earth revolves around the Sun, and we can point to facts and use mathematical models to justify what we deem to be correct. And although I can justify the typographic correctness I insist on by indicating it is better for readability and legibility, at the same time, it is merely a matter of convention; if I had learned that straight quote rather than apostrophe was the correct typographic character to use, would I insist on the correctness of the use of the straight quote, or would I go my own way and insist on the ever so slight improvement in readability and legibility of the apostrophe? And does it even matter at all what I insist on, given that I get my message across clearly regardless?
Whether enforced or by our own making, there are certain rules we follow pedantically, even if it brings us frustration to follow them. Why I keep doing it, I am not exactly sure. I suppose I just deem it improper to let certain standards slip. It’s a trait that suits me well as a graphic designer and typographer, but as a person living life, I have to laugh at how much time I am wasting.