Navigating independent living requires balancing responsibilities and monitoring oneself. All individuals must strike that balance that makes the most sense for them and their lifestyle regardless of neurodiversity. To execute daily living tasks, one must self-start and sustain motivation throughout despite various distractions and competing priorities. Across the board, this is a difficult ask. There is an inherent lack of external structure to use as a unit of measure and there are limited natural occurrences that lead to true positive reinforcement. The question of “why?” is brought to the table while an individual defines what purposeful action looks like for themselves. Those on the autism spectrum may encounter some challenges establishing a system to conduct a self-sufficient life. Meaning making can serve to be an arduous process as there is much that is open ended and left to be constructed independently. That being said, figuring out how to organize time and prioritize household tasks can be difficult when they do not have the same “fixed” deadlines of school or work. Supporting individuals on the autism spectrum in further developing executive function skills enables goal-directed behavior and promotes accountability.
Executive functions allow for the execution of day-to-day tasks while keeping an eye on what lies ahead. They encompass all the cognitive processes that allow one to move from point A to point B with various amounts of focused effort. Executive functions guide behavior and direct course for problem-solving (Dawson & Guare, 2016). When considering the management of one’s living space, there are various multi-step tasks that are being completed in a sometimes simultaneous fashion. Laundry can be done while dinner cooks in the oven and one engages in another responsibility. This juggling between activities requires a lot of starting, stopping and picking up where the previous was left off. In any capacity, there is a certain amount of potential chaos that brews below the surface.
When providing attention to the following executive function skills, an individual can be better suited to manage day to day responsibilities.
Prioritization and Planning
It is easy to push off tasks that are not tied to external responsibilities. Through focusing attention on the structure of time, seemingly “backburner” items are given a place so that living spaces remain optimal. When looking at one’s roles and responsibilities in a variety of contexts, all can be sorted into the categories of “fixed” and “flexible.” Those components that are fixed are firmly situated within a time constraint or external involvement that create an impetus for completion. Deadlines or hours of operation forced these tasks into a set space on the schedule where the rest of one’s day is planned around. All that remains flexible are subject to adjustment. Being mindful in this is crucial as it can be very easy for these tasks to fall by the wayside.
Creating structure allows for all to be accounted for and given a designated time to attend to those things that can easily be ignored or have their avoidance justified. While it is important to focus on what is essential, developing blinders to tasks that are not bound by external accountability is not advised. There is no true dire consequence of letting dishes pile up in the sink or forgoing laundry for the third week in a row, but day to day functioning is impacted, thus they are tasks that must be prioritized. For those that struggle with expectations that are not governed by rigid rules, enacting a system to follow can be helpful. A set plan that makes the space for the maintenance of one’s living space builds routine and situates one in a productive habit.
Once tasks have been prioritized and a plan to carry them out have been made, it is essential to evaluate the time that will be dedicated and the pacing one needs to move through a schedule. Visual and auditory prompts are helpful here to aid in the transitions from one activity to the next. Making a list of each responsibility that includes the time needed to execute a given task and that is easily accessible serves as a tool of reference. Conceptualizing the passage of time can be difficult so alarms may be increasingly valuable. It is not unusual for ten minutes to feel like seconds or even hours depending on the nature or interest level of a task. Those who struggle with grounding themselves in time can benefit from external markers to help guide through the day. This allows for urgent tasks to be situated within the necessary confines while still making space for the essential but maybe not immediate household needs. Here is where it is possible to make good use of structure in order ensure all bases remain covered. Supporting someone on the autism spectrum may look like assisting in the crafting of such timetables or providing prompts in the form of questions to help transition. Knowing there may be some adaptations is necessary as there will be times where tasks may take longer than expected. The creation of buffers between activities can help with the discomfort of moving on and abandoning a task that may not have been completed entirely. It is good to be prepared for when there are moments where the washing machine is not done running so it is not yet possible to move on to putting the clothes in the dryer. Sometimes the timing is off, and flexibility is needed.
Unexpected obstacles arise despite how ironclad a plan appears. A dish gets dropped or the timer on the oven shows 5 more minutes, but it is necessary to leave for an appointment at this given moment. Navigating these situations can be difficult due to the nature that they were unplanned and require time that was not accounted for. While it is not necessary to insert time in the schedule for suddenly emergent tasks, one must be able to adjust as new priorities present themselves. In these instances, it can be helpful to model “taking stock” to see what aspects of a set schedule can no longer be adhered to and where flexible items on the agenda can be redistributed to a later time in order to address the newfound item. Attention to self-monitoring skills and cognitive modeling is helpful here as acknowledging the discomfort or inconvenience can validate the frustration that comes along with making room for the unknown. Noting that priorities have changed and walking through the reasons why begins to reconcile the situation and switch between tasks.
Moving from one activity to the next is essential when executing daily living responsibilities. Not every activity requires rapt attention at all times and there is a waiting game that is played. Being able to move from chore to chore in incremental ways makes the most of time. That being said, though it may be time to make dinner, there are tasks that can be done while waiting for a pot to boil on the stove. Having a menu of options of small activities that can be executed within the waiting required of others allows for an individual to be most judicious with the day.
“What is working?” is a question that should be asked frequently when extrapolating the efficiency of one’s system of keeping track of daily living responsibilities. In order to best foster independence, it is essential to provide opportunities to engage in thinking that determines whether or not given methods best serve a situation. Though specific steps are parceled out for each task and can be represented in whichever manner is most suitable for an individual, opportunities to engage in discourse about process allow for increased independence and proactive problem-solving skills. Taking moments to establish the efficacy of systems can ground one in the “Why?” behind a procedure and opens the conversation to determining if present means of being are ideal and where they may be entry points for intervention. It can be that expectations are being met, but the ways to go about it may be a bit roundabout. Exercises in evaluating present productivity and other options help to keep one constantly aware that there has been a commitment to an activity but it is subject to change. The idea here is to build routines but to also pay attention to the need that there may need to be alterations made to those routines over time. While the process for cleaning the bathroom may remain largely untouched, there can be small variances depending on availability of resources and time permitting. Rather than abandoning a task because it seems as though it cannot be completed, being aware of one’s thought processes explores which aspects are possible.
There are tasks that one has to do and then there are those that an individual may want to do. An ideal schedule accounts for both. However, it can be hard to find motivation to complete these “have to’s” when the “want to’s” are so tempting. The executive function skill of response inhibition is one that plays a key role in managing adult responsibilities and meeting the expectations of daily living. The self-imposed guidelines needed to care for one’s living space can be difficult to follow independently. Seeking out external systems of accountability can be beneficial so that pace can be kept and commitments remain in place. Setting up times to communicate with an individual at the start of tasks can serve as a prompt that it is now the moment to be engaged in a focused activity. Tying seemingly small tasks to larger picture concepts can help to establish exigence and motivation as well. For example, wiping down the counter as an end of day ritual is one that can be easily abandoned but may serve the purpose of preventing the compilation of messes if one struggles to identify and address them as they come up. Knowing what one takes note of and will act on can help to determine what needs to be done to set up an individual for success. It is no secret that it can be much more gratifying to participate in a preferred activity than complete a chore that will not have immediate consequences. Any moments to bring awareness to those consequences helps to rationalize the importance of prioritized tasks.
Overall, it should be noted that such strategies to support individuals on the autism spectrum with living independent lives are not revolutionary nor wildly different from those who are seen as neurotypical use. However, it is the focused effort and intentionality that make all the difference. Rather than riding on the assumption that such tools will be uncovered and implemented on one’s own, support should be given to help guide a productive life in the vision the individual themselves establishes. Being a source of support in operationally defining what each task looks like and where it will fit in a given day is helpful to create focused plans and cover a breadth of daily living skills. Coaching through modeling and being alongside them for repeated practice can be beneficial and instill confidence in one’s own competence in the long run.
Dawson, P., & Guare, R. (2018). Executive Skills in Children and Adolescents: A Practical Guide to Assessment and Intervention – Third Edition (The Guilford Practical Intervention in the Schools Series).
Dawson, P., & Guare, R. (2016). The smart but scattered guide to success: How to use your brain’s executive skills to keep up, stay calm, and get organized at work and at home. Guilford Press.
Gray, K. M., Keating, C. M., Taffe, J. R., Brereton, A. V., Einfeld, S. L., Reardon, T. C., & Tonge, B. J. (2014). Adult outcomes in autism: Community inclusion and living skills. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 44(12), 3006-3015.
Kleinhans, N., Akshoomoff, N., & Delis, D. C. (2005). Executive functions in autism and Asperger’s disorder: flexibility, fluency, and inhibition. Developmental neuropsychology, 27(3), 379-401.
Panerai, S., Tasca, D., Ferri, R., Genitori D’Arrigo, V., & Elia, M. (2014). Executive functions and adaptive behaviour in autism spectrum disorders with and without intellectual disability. Psychiatry journal, 2014.
Silberman, S. (2015). Neurotribes: The legacy of autism and the future of neurodiversity. Penguin.
Smith, L. E., Maenner, M. J., & Seltzer, M. M. (2012). Developmental trajectories in adolescents and adults with autism: The case of daily living skills. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 51(6), 622-631.
Wallace, G. L., Kenworthy, L., Pugliese, C. E., Popal, H. S., White, E. I., Brodsky, E., & Martin, A. (2016). Real-world executive functions in adults with autism spectrum disorder: Profiles of impairment and associations with adaptive functioning and co-morbid anxiety and depression. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 46(3), 1071-1083.