Autism, Executive Function, and Housework

Lots of people on the autism spectrum have executive function problems.  When I was diagnosed, I was very surprised to find an extra diagnosis of severe ADHD, which my doctor explained as executive function issues that are a frequent part of autism.  She told me that, with my IQ, I shouldn’t have to work so hard to keep up with life.  I’d never thought about it, but she was right – I’ve struggled all my life to keep up with work, school, housework, everything. 

What is executive function?

Executive function (EF) refers to a set of skills controlled by the higher brain functions in the frontal lobe.  These skills are what allow you to plan and organize, pay attention, manage your time, keep track of things you need to do, switch between tasks or multitask, regulate your behavior, and more.  Basically, it’s what lets you be an adult.  You use EF to choose whether or not you say that bad joke that just popped into your head, or to make yourself hang up your coat instead of dropping it on a chair, or to sit down and pay the bills twice a month so your lights stay on. 

If you’d like a really good in-depth primer on executive function, there’s a great four-part series over at Musings of an Aspie

How do executive function problems affect autistic adults?

To be honest, it can manifest in almost every aspect of life.  Some of us are chronically late, others are forever losing their keys or wallet or debit card.  Some people can’t remember to make dinner or do the laundry, and just about all of us struggle to keep up with tasks at work. 

One common theme in the lives of lots of autistic and ADHD adults is the sheer inability to keep house.  We’re not slobs, we’re not lazy, but somehow we just can’t manage to maintain a neat, orderly home, even when we really want to.  Despite our best efforts, we end up living in a cluttered mess, and it brings back memories of the refrain we heard a lot in childhood: “You just need to try harder”. 

For me, it felt like I was incapable of the very basics of adult life and it used to cause me a lot of shame and guilt. 

FLYLady to the rescue!

Over a decade ago, I had to move on short notice and desperately Googled tips for an easy, organized move.  That’s how I found FLYLady.  Her name is Marla Cilley and she specializes in helping “Sidetracked Home Executives” (SHEs) learn how to act like they were “Born Organized” (BO) without any judgment or admonishing. 

The FLYLady method is tailor-made for anyone with EF problems.  It starts with one step: shine your kitchen sink before you go to bed every day for one month.  Then you add one new habit every month – making your bed, drinking plenty of water, getting 15 minutes of movement every day, “swishing and swiping” your bathroom, etc. – while you build a few basic three-step routines.  You start with a nightly routine before bed to prepare for the next day, then you create one for the morning, then you add another for after work or school.  The idea is that as you add habits and create routines it all becomes kind of automatic and you do things so naturally that you never have to think about it again.  This is great for autistic people because we LOVE our routines and the freedom they give us to focus on other things!   

Written lists

Once you have your routines, you write them down in FLYLady’s Control Journals. Writing things down is a great help for those with EF function issues, not only as a backup for our brains but also because the act of writing things out helps us process them.  FLYLady has Control Journals for the home, finances, holiday plans, and lots more, all designed to make things clear and easy for you to handle.  The financial CJ breaks down the scary task of dealing with your money into simple bite-sized tasks.  The holiday CJ is set up so that you will have all your shopping and decorating done by December 1, so that you can enjoy the season instead of stressing about it.  

There are also full checklists for detailed cleaning of each “zone” of your home, and they include everything you can think of!  There’s a lot of stuff that you might never need to worry about, but if you start with those lists you certainly won’t forget anything.  Just pare them down to what you need or what you’re capable of.  Beyond that, there are grocery lists, pantry and meal planning lists, emergency information sheets for anything and everything, and so much more.  Everything is adaptable to your own circumstances, whether you’re a stay-at-home mom, a working parent, living alone, or whatever your situation might be.


FLYLady works entirely on support and encouragement.  She never says you need to do better or try harder.  In fact, she specifically tells you NOT to try to be perfect.  Everything is done one little baby step at a time and every little win is celebrated as progress.  Many of her assignments and emails sign off with “I am so proud of you!” and I know how cheesy that sounds, but it really helps! 

Some of the FLYLady phrases that have spilled over into the rest of my life are: 

  • Progress, not perfection. 
  • Don’t try to catch up, just jump in where you are. 
  • If today wasn’t a success, don’t give up.  You’ll do better tomorrow. 
  • We do the best we can with what we know.  When we know better, we do better. 

And, of course, 

  • Baby steps! 

If you grew up with EF issues or an ADHD diagnosis, you might recognize these phrases as the total opposite of what you heard most of your life.  I think this is part of the secret of FLYLady.  The system is built around setting yourself up for success instead of beating yourself up for not meeting some arbitrary expectation. 

It’s OK to start over

So I’ve known about FLYLady for over 10 years now.  And my home is still a mess.  It doesn’t get as bad as it used to, but I still haven’t managed to “keep a nice home”, as my southern grandmothers would put it.   

I tell people I was born without the “do it now” gene.  Other people look at a piece of mail on the kitchen table and think “oh yeah, I still need to handle that, let me do it now”. I look at that piece of mail, think “oh yeah, I still need to handle that” – and then go about my day. Six weeks later, not only is that piece of mail still there, unattended, it’s also buried under a pile of six weeks’ worth of other stuff I’ve treated the same way. 

I can overlook anything. So housekeeping is a huge challenge for me.

But I have made progress.  I remember to take the trash out every week now! I know that sounds stupidly basic, but for a long time, I would just forget to do it, even when it got bad. Every morning when I get up, I make my bed.  My sink isn’t shiny, but I don’t let the dishes pile up, at least.  I still haven’t learned to vacuum regularly, but I do it often enough that I don’t have to empty the canister after each room.  And my house is never so bad that I can’t make it presentable with a day’s work.  I mean, I wouldn’t be confident if Queen Elizabeth stopped by, but it’d be good enough for family or people who know me well.  That’s a huge improvement from where I was 10 years ago.   

I go through periods when I’m really into the FLYLady system and follow it to the letter, and I get really good at keeping my house nice.  And then something happens – I get sick, or I have a project to do, or I go out of town, or something – and I just sort of…stop.  But that’s ok.  Because I can always jump back on the “FLYwagon” at any point.  I can always start over, from the very beginning or picking up where I left off.  Every time I start over, something sticks.  I figure if I do it enough times, I’m bound to get the whole thing! 

It’s no shame that we have to learn the art of housekeeping as adults, or that we need some extra help to do it.  I can’t recommend FLYLady highly enough for anyone who struggles with executive function issues or ADHD.  If I can get better at this, so can you!  I’ll talk about more ways to manage with executive function issues soon. 

Autism, executive function problems, and housework can lead to a kitchen that looks like this.

What’s your biggest challenge in running your home?  Mine was always taking out the trash – yes, that meant my house got nasty sometimes!  What’s your best tip for housekeeping?  Any tricks you’d like to share? 

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