Adulting for Autistics: Set Yourself Up for Success with Structure
Living independently as an autistic adult can be a real challenge, largely due to our executive function problems. Between keeping your home clean, keeping yourself and your family fed, maintaining your own hygiene and laundry, and going to work regularly, it seems like there are endless little details to keep track of – or lose track of. Each task we’re presented with is a place where we could slip up somehow. I’ve talked before about covering yourself by recognizing and preparing for your weak areas. Today, I’m talking about setting yourself up for success by making your home work for you.
The best way I’ve found to keep myself on top of all the myriad details of adult life is to make it really hard for me to fail at it. That is, I’ve learned to set a lot of safeguards for myself. Like guardrails along a highway, these props and processes catch me when I go off the “properly adulting” road and keep me from falling into the “no executive functioning at all” ditch. Here are some of my best tips to set yourself up for success using structure in your home.
As I mentioned in my 7 must-haves as an autistic adult, I discovered the idea of a launchpad from the amazing Marla Cilley, better known as FlyLady. It’s really quite simple: have a designated place near the front door (or whichever door you use most) where you keep everything that needs to leave the house with you. When you leave, you just grab everything up and go. Then, when you return, you put everything back exactly where it goes. It almost sounds condescending when it’s written out like that, but I know from my own experience that the idea of putting things back where you got them doesn’t always come naturally to those of us with executive function issues. Sometimes we have to train ourselves into putting our keys, purse, wallet, phone, etc. in the same place each day.
A launchpad doesn’t have to be complicated or even pretty. I created mine using a side table next to my front door, a bowl, and a row of hooks mounted on the wall above it. Every time I come into the house, I hang up my keys on the hook, drop my purse on the table, and put my sunglasses or other small things in the bowl. In the evening, if there’s something extra that has to come with me the next day, I put it under my purse so I know where it is. Yes, there’s still a ton of stuff all over the rest of that table, and it is by no means neat or tidy. But it works.
This basic and imperfect setup changed me from a woman who never knew where she dropped her purse and spent an hour looking for her sunglasses before she left every morning into a woman who can swish out the door with everything she needs in about 3 minutes. I can’t say enough good things about it!
Lists and Whiteboards
My brain can hold ridiculous amounts of information – unfortunately, it’s mostly random bits of trivia, song lyrics, movie quotes, and vaguely interconnected thoughts and sensations. Information I need to remember has a lifespan of maybe 10 seconds in my unaided brain. So it’s a good thing that I LOVE to make lists. I really like seeing well-organized information (and crossing things off), plus writing something down helps me process it. I make lists of chores that need to be done, groceries and other items to be bought, things to pack for trips, projects I’d like to do around the house or in the garden, and anything else I can think of.
Over the course of my adult life, I’ve made so many lists on paper that I frequently find half-used notebooks and notepads with old lists that I never finished or lost and ended up re-writing. This is less than ideal, seeing as it creates clutter and defeats the purpose of all these lists I make – doesn’t help me stay organized at all!
For a clutter-free option, I turned to magnetic whiteboards. These are perfect for things like grocery lists, meal planning, and small reminders. I have one on my freezer door which I’ve divided into quadrants: a grocery list, a list of meal options, a list of other things to buy, and anything I want to remember to look up. I solved the problem of losing the dry erase markers by hanging a magnetic cup next to it.
There are also whiteboards that are pre-printed as calendars or have a corkboard section attached. I have a great weekly schedule board with a strip of corkboard at the bottom that also lives on my freezer door. Personally, I don’t use this for detailed scheduling (my paper planner and my to-do list app handle that for me), but I put up any appointments, deadlines, hobby classes, or events for the week. If I were working a job where my schedule changed each week, I’d definitely write my hours on that board. Were I in college, I’d probably put up my class schedule and add other events around that. This works well for me because I see it all the time, so part of my brain registers the information each time I see it, even if I’m not thinking about it. I can’t explain why, but that really helps things get through to me.
This is going to be a divisive one, I know. The way many of us stick to rules and routines is exactly what gave rise to the upsetting stereotype that TV constantly makes fun of, so I can understand if autistic adults shy away from setting up more rules for themselves. Also, we do have to make sure that our rules serve us instead of running us. Here’s what I mean.
For several years, I continually forgot to take out the trash. I knew it needed to be done, but I kept thinking I’d do it later and then later just never happened. This went on for months at a time and yes, that meant that I lived in absolute filth between twice-a-year fits of intensive cleaning. After one of my resets, I made a rule: the trash goes out every Saturday, whether it’s full or not. It took real work to make myself hold to that, but it eventually stuck. I’m not perfect at keeping it up – if it’s raining or I’m not feeling well that day, I don’t make the trek down to the dumpster – but the next week I catch up, so the worst my house can get is 2 weeks’ worth of trash. Creating that rule helped me fix a problem that I could never figure out before.
Depending on your situation and where you need support, you might make other rules for yourself and/or your household. Maybe you need to designate a day for laundry to make sure that you always have clean clothes. My laundry day was Sunday for a long time, then it moved to Friday; it’s important to remember that you can always change a rule that isn’t working well for you. Perhaps your family tends to let dishes pile up in the sink instead of loading and running the dishwasher. Then you could make a rule that dishes go directly into the dishwasher and it gets run every night before bed – or maybe it would work better to run the dishwasher before you leave in the morning, so you’ll have clean dishes for dinner. If you work from home or don’t go out much, you might need to remind yourself to wash your hair regularly. You’ll get no judgment from this corner – after I’d been working from home for a few months, I found I had trouble remembering when I’d last showered or washed my hair. Lack of structure can wreak havoc on an executive function-challenged brain.
To enforce that structure we need, you might schedule homework time for the same hours each day, or limit video game time the same way. If you’re prone to binge watching when you ought to be doing something else, you can make a rule that you only watch 2-3 episodes at a time, or that you can watch 1 episode after finishing 3 of your tasks.
Set yourself up for success with structure in your home and you’ll find that adulting can be so much easier. There are still a million little things to keep track of, but the more support you give yourself, the more brain space you’ll have for the surprises and changes that get thrown your way.
What’s your best tip for keeping on top of adult life? Do you use whiteboards, visual scheduling, or other props to help you in your adulting? If you’re a parent, do you use the same methods for your kids as you do for yourself, or do you find other practices work better?