Rediscovered: the calming power of routine and ritual

Two weeks ago our dishwasher stopped working. I still don’t know why and, for now at least, I’m in no hurry to fix or replace it. Here’s why…

In August 2002 Lynne and I decided to separate. In May that year I’d offered Lynne her freedom because she had become so distressed and disconsolate that I could no longer bear to see her pain and anxiety, and the impact it was having on our youngest child, Esther, aged 13 — and the only one of our five children still living at home.

All I knew was that I was the source of Lynne’s constant unhappiness, but I couldn’t understand what about me was causing whatever was upsetting her.

Finally, in mid-August, she told me she thought we should separate and I accepted her decision. A week or so later I chanced onto the National Press Club‘s weekly address from Canberra when I sat down in front of the TV to eat my lunch, instead of returning to my home office and computer. The speaker was Dr Tony Attwood, a clinical psychologist whose book, “Asperger’s Syndrome — A Guide for Parents and Professionals”, had recently been published.

I’d tuned in late in his address, so I struggled to make a lot of sense from what he was saying. The main point I got was that Asperger’s Syndrome was notoriously difficult to diagnose in adult males because of their typical high intelligence and their ability to mask their condition, and the condition was most prevalent in men — but which he suspected had more to do with the even-higher-level masking skills of Aspie women.

The attention-grabber for me was Dr Attwood’s reply to the first question from a woman journalist in the Q&A time that followed. She made the comment that she understood why the condition was more difficult to diagnose in adult males, but could he provide a brief snapshot of a typical adult male Aspie?

In his customary positive, cheerful and enthusiastically pro-Aspie manner, Dr Attwood offered a tick-list of attributes and behaviours of adult male Aspies, to which the lady replied “can you tell us what the world would be like without Aspies?”

Without a moment’s hesitation, Attwood replied “the world needs Aspies… they’re the movers and shakers and consciences of history! Without them, we’d all be having a wonderfully social time together around the fire… in the caves!”

At that point, I realised that I was lying on the couch, on my side, curled in the fœtal position, in clinical shock because the only thing missing from that list was my name.

I don’t recall how long I was in that state, but I recall eventually leaping to my feet and racing to my office. Within an hour I’d tracked down the convenor of Autism and Aspergers Advocacy Australia (AAAA) — the peak body for Australian Autism groups — and obtained the name and contact details of Dr Richard Eisenmajer, whom he said was the leading expert on Asperger’s Syndrome in Melbourne. Within a few hours I’d made an appointment for late September 2002 to begin my diagnosis, which was confirmed on Christmas Eve 2002… the absolute best Christmas gift I’ve ever received.

I had certainty about why my marriage had failed, finally!

A new home… in an old location

After weeks of trying, in vain, to find a rental property within a few kilometres of our family home in Doncaster East and which would allow me to keep Angus, my son’s black Staffordshire Bull Terrier, I was at a standstill. (Josh had moved to the USA in mid 2001 and married on Valentine’s Day 2002 — but couldn’t take Angus with him).

The dilemma was finally solved in mid-September when my recently-retired sister, Marg, called to suggest that I return to my old home town of Wonthaggi on the south-east coast of Victoria, where she and our mother, 81, shared our parents’ retirement home. She pointed out that rental housing was cheap and plentiful, I already had a support network of family and friends and she and Mum would provide me with a home-cooked meal every evening.


I quickly found the perfect home for Angus and me — a recently-renovated, 120 year old former miner’s cottage with a large, well-established yard and gardens, with plenty of fruit trees and no internal fencing. Angus loved it. He could lie under different trees as the summer sun moved throughout the day, he could roam his domain feely and position himself underneath the floor of whichever room I happened to be in. His idea of heaven, apparently.


The house had been beautifully renovated, with a huge bathroom — and a kitchen with no dishwasher. But, since I was living there alone, except for Esther, who stayed with me every other weekend, I figured it wouldn’t hurt me to simply hand-wash any dishes as I went. (Don’t forget, I ate with my mother and sister at their home every evening.)

Even better, I could get high-speed ADSL broadband Internet connection for my work, and when my interstate or overseas clients visited, we were based in the centre of the beautiful Bass Coast tourist region — the #2 tourist destination in Australia after the Great Barrier Reef. So there was abundant, world-class accommodation and dining amongst some of the most spectacular countryside and seaside scenery in Australia.

My home town: Wonthaggi. 1: Main shopping centre, 2: Golf course, 3: Hospital, 4: State Coal Mine Historical Park, 5: Cape Paterson, 6: Inverloch, 7: Anderson’s Inlet, 8: Venus Bay.
Angus’ favourite early morning walk, 10 minutes from our home.

An unexpected bonus!

I was surprised to discover that, as I explored my newly-identified status as an Aspie, the routine of washing the dishes turned into a kind of ritual… and that ritual calmed me and dispelled any tension or anxiety I felt at the time.

I actually enjoyed hand-washing dishes for the first time!

After three years, almost to the day, I returned to our family home in Melbourne.

Now, here we are, exactly 16 years later, and I’ve rediscovered the peace and serenity of my former ritual of hand-washing dishes. And a ritual it certainly is!

It took me a couple of weeks to figure out the best routine for me. Lynne’s approach is to wash dishes as she goes, and that’s fine… for her. I need to set aside a regular time, and to meet certain conditions, otherwise I find my subconscious mind blocks my awareness of dirty dishes — even when I fetch a glass of water at the sink to take with my twice-daily medications. I simply don’t “see” those dishes. My brain somehow doesn’t register them as needing my attention. (No… not a cop-out. This is a very real thing for many Aspies, and a serious source of frustration.)

In the early morning, however, my mind has allocated time for washing dishes and I can see them plainly. I look forward to that quiet time alone in the kitchen. It helps me prepare mentally and emotionally for the day ahead.

Who knew? Science confirms my discovery…
Washing Dishes Can Reduce Stress, Science Says!

©2018 John Counsel. All rights reserved.

Learn more: Visit Aspergers Help Australia Facebook Page.

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