Lining Things Up

Before I started really digging into online accounts of what living with autism was like, I hadn’t particularly thought that I lined things up. Not unusually so, at any rate. I’d mainly heard stereotypical stories of little boys lining up cars or dinosaurs instead of playing with them and that description didn’t fit me particularly well.

After all, I did actually play with dolls and little figurines and make up stories, but my stories were very heavily based on real life situations and people I knew. I also played frequently with my Matchbox cars – sending them on journeys down my racetracks that invariably ended with them crashing in the end.

But I also did line things up. I still do.

I used to very meticulously arrange my stuffed animals and dolls in rows so that they were all about equally visible, to be absolutely fair to them all: smallest in front! They all had a spot. Honestly, although I did play with them some (mainly by talking to them and reenacting real life scenarios), I spent much more time arranging them.

My Matchbox cars, likewise, were lined up before I sent them down the racetracks. In that way, I let them take turns being played with. I didn’t want any of them to feel left out.

Every month or so I would stay up all night, take all my books off the shelves (quite a feat given that I had several hundreds of books by the time I was in late elementary school), put them in a pile in the middle of my floor, and then I would carefully line them up very specifically on the shelves so that they would be easy to find, but also aesthetically pleasing.

I made certain that the bound ends lined up evenly, no matter how wide the books actually were, and the tops created pleasant lines as they went from largest to smallest and then back up again to the next bookshelf end. I paid more attention to the shapes and lines they created than to the colors, although colors factored in a bit too, all other things being equal.

I mostly didn’t notice clutter in my room on a daily basis and things often didn’t make it back where they belonged on an individual basis, but eventually the mess would start to bother me. At that point, I would stay up all night in order to get my room all set up again, all at once.

Cleaning/organizing my room could never be only half-done for some reason* and it was always an all-night affair to get things in order properly again with everything lined up. I could, however, focus on just one thing (stuffed animals, for example) without needing to completely organize the rest of my room.

I lined up silverware in exact patterns when I loaded the dishwasher and when arranging them in the drawer. I had to be specific with the dishwasher mainly to keep the little forks and spoons safe. They each needed to be with a knife for protection. That’s one example of lining up that I don’t have to do any longer, but I did that up until around the time I had my oldest child and had to spend more of my energy on baby care activities.

The most important, everyday thing that I have always lined up is food. Any finger foods that have several different shapes (animal crackers), different flavors (fruit snacks/jellybeans), or different colors (M&Ms) must be physically lined up in a very specific way before I can eat them. If they aren’t lined up then I can’t eat them. Once they’re lined up, they must stay lined up and be eaten in the correct order.

I plan ahead/mentally line up foods with multiple components, like salads. The last bite of anything must be the most perfect bite possible. If there are several things on my plate, I have to eat them in a specific order that depends greatly on what types of foods are on my plate and which one(s) I like the best on that particular day. Potlucks are particularly fun for me because it’s a worthy challenge to figure out the correct order and it’s a process that I quite enjoy.

However, it’s also a **necessary process – something that happens to be fun, but is not at all done for fun – and I literally cannot eat my food without having planned it out (mentally lined it up) or physically lined it up beforehand. Of course, it’s very automatic now too after so many years of doing it and my mental lining up process is probably not terribly noticeable to other people.

I have so much practice because this planning out the food ritual started before I can even remember. According to a couple of my older female relatives, even as a baby I would eat all of one thing, then turn my plate and eat all of the next thing, the entire way around the plate. I was reportedly using utensils correctly well before my first birthday while being an impressively neat eater for a baby my age.

I also have to line up colors like crayons, colored pencils, and pens. Otherwise the disorganization assaults my brain. I had to line up my colored pens in college, very precisely, before I could take my notes in class. I always used each pen for a set amount of writing before switching to the next in line and putting the one I’d just used at the end of the line.

So, yes, the lining things up stereotype fits me extremely well in several different ways. Lining things up was so normal to me for so long that it simply took me a while to figure out that the descriptions did fit.


*Having children means being constantly interruptible while the children are around. Thus my main method of staying up all night and cleaning all the things at once as a child/young adult became impossible after having children.

**Something can be both enjoyable *and* necessary to do for someone’s well being and functionality.

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