I wanted to describe a couple of the traits often associated with autism that were displayed by the character of Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time but that don’t describe me, at least not in the same way.  (This sort of difference is to be expected simply because no two people are alike, and that holds for people with autism or Asperger’s– on top of the fact that Christopher is a fictional character!)

I remember that when I was talking about the trait of obsessiveness according to the DSM-IV‘s criteria for diagnosing Asperger’s syndrome, that I was able to give some examples of the part about having extremely focused interests.  However, I wasn’t able to think of a good example for the following criterion:

2.  Apparently inflexible adherence to specific, nonfunctional routines or rituals.

The character of Christopher in Mark Haddon’s novel hates the colors brown and yellow and loves the color red.  Based on these preferences, he has a fairly complicated procedure that he uses every day when he watches cars from his bus window as he goes to school.

  • Passing 4 red cars in a row means it is a “Good Day.”  (He later clarifies that this means “a good day for starting projects and planning things.”)
  • Passing 3 red cars in a row means it is a “Quite Good Day.”
  • Passing 5 red cars in a row means it is a “Super Good Day.”

(Why is 3 better than 4?  I don’t remember Christopher explaining that, but I think it’s because he likes prime numbers, and 4 is not prime.)

On the other hand, passing 4 yellow cars in a row means it is a “Black Day,” which Christopher defines as “a day when I don’t speak to anyone and sit on my own reading books and don’t eat my lunch and Take No Risks.  If he has two “Black Days” in a row, on the following day, he allows himself to keep his eyes shut for the entire bus ride to school.

This behavior seems pretty strange to most people, especially in light of the fact that in the rest of the book, Christopher places a great amount of importance on logical reasoning.  He does not respond to others’ emotional outbursts the way people might expect, always giving each matter a lot of thought, and he rejects supernatural explanations for mysteries, believing that a natural explanation will eventually present itself.

So why does Christopher allow the color of the cars he sees on the way to school to influence what he does during the day?  Here is how he explains it:

“I said that I liked things to be in a nice order.  And one way of things being in a nice order was to be logical.  Especially if those things were numbers or an argument.  But there were other ways of putting things in a nice order.  And that was why I had Good Days and Black Days.  And I said that some people who worked in an office came out of their house in the morning and saw that the sun was shining and it made them feel happy, or they saw that it was raining and it made them feel sad, but the only difference was the weather and if they worked in an office the weather didn’t have anything to do with whether they had a good day or a bad day.”

Elsewhere, he compares the idea of having colors he likes and colors he hates to having favorite foods to order from a menu.  The reasons for them are nothing more than personal preferences, but without them, you would have trouble telling where to start in order to decide what to eat or what to do.

I found those explanations very interesting– it doesn’t make such rituals any more logical, but it made me realize that maybe they are more common than we think; it’s just that we overlook the ones we’re used to seeing as “normal.”  If you work indoors, does it really make a difference whether it’s sunny or rainy outside?  Is it just human to be illogical?  (Star Trek has certainly always argued that it is!)

If I’m not careful, my obsessive-compulsiveness can lead me to waste energy on things that could be described as rituals similar to Christopher’s in the novel.  They often have to do with a desire to be “fair,” except that I feel I have to be fair to inanimate objects!

For example, some security keypads use a password consisting of a 4-digit code, with a fifth keypress that can be any number.  So if your code is “1234,” you can open the door by pressing “12345” or “12341” or “12348” or any of seven other possibilities.  I’m not sure why this is done– maybe so someone looking over your shoulder doesn’t learn anything by seeing which key you press last?

Well, sometimes I find myself pausing to decide which key to press last.  Most people would probably enter “12345” to continue the pattern, but any of the other keys will work just as well.  So I end up trying to decide which one I haven’t pressed in the longest time.

Which is totally silly, because it doesn’t matter, and all this does is waste mental energy that I need to devote to other things!  It’s a case where not thinking is better.  In general, I try hard not to become superstitious about anything (I don’t think anything I do or say has an effect on whether my favorite sports teams win or lose a game I’m watching on TV, for instance), because with my mental makeup, any superstition would likely be difficult for me to break.

Most of all, I don’t want to become superstitious about God, which is something the Bible warns about.  God doesn’t do things to me out of spite to trick me or because I did something he liked or that annoyed him.  His decisions may seem illogical to me, but I can still trust based on what I know about his character that God has a reason for everything he does, and he is far more knowing and more loving than I am.

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