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How to Help Teens with Autism Become More Organized
This is a question I hear from my readers and on the internet a lot. Do you have any tips on how I can help my teen become more organized? He is constantly losing his homework and his room is so messy. He doesn’t know how to find things in his bedroom and always needs my help. Is there any way that I can help him become more organized to find things on his own??
I decided I wanted to look more into these questions and see what information I could find as it relates to organizational strategies and autism. I am not an expert in this area, but I wanted to share with you resources and information I found while looking up information about organization and executive function skills. I know these skills have a huge impact on their everyday life skills. I did my best to find helpful tips and strategies as well as include tips and advice from autistic adults.
Why Organization can be Difficult to Learn for Teens with Autism
Some individuals with autism may have difficulty with cognitive function skills. They may have difficulty with processing information, problem-solving, coming up with solutions, and predicting consequences of an action. They can have difficulty thinking ahead to the future, so if you tell them a date or time to remember in the future, they may have difficulty remembering it. They may also have difficulty understanding the concept of time. If your teen is struggling with any of these areas, they may also have difficulty with organizational skills.
It is important to note, that not all individuals with autism will struggle with executive function and organizational skills.
What is Executive Function?
Executive Functions are a set of cognitive processes that help all of us to:
- Plan and organize daily tasks
- Be flexible between focusing on a task and then shifting our attention to performing another task
- Manage time-constrained activities
- Remember things in our mind for a short duration (working memory)
- Control our impulses
- Prioritize what is important in our day
- Monitor ourselves with self-awareness
- Initiate a plan (knowing when to start an activity)
This information was obtained from https://researchautism.org/understanding-executive-functions/
Teens with autism mature at a slower pace in executive skills
“Teens with autism mature at a slower pace in executive skills. They may have particular trouble with flexibility, organization, initiating activities and working memory. In kids with an autism spectrum disorder, cognitive flexibility is the standout problem for them and seems to remain a problem as they get older,” (Rosenthal, et.al 2013).
So how can we help them improve with their executive function skills and organization skills?
Tips for Success with Organization
Now that we know what executive function skills are, what strategies can we use to help them with these skills? These are tips I have learned through personal experiences with my family or with clients and then additional strategies I have found through research.
- Figure out if these skills are important to them: Figure out if them being unorganized is a priority for them. If losing their homework or having a dirty room is not a priority to them, then they will most likely not want to work with you to improve in this area. If this is the case, then you may need to wait until they are ready to work on this skill or figure out a way to talk to them about why these skills are important.
- Get an understanding of their needs and work with them together: Before starting any plan of how to help, you need to have a clear picture of what their needs are in order to help them. What specific thing are they having a hard time figuring out?
- Make a plan: Start with one specific task and make a plan. Write out the plan on paper or on your phone to keep track of what you did and how it worked. That way you have a way to reflect on what is working well and not so well.
- Make Lists: Find a visual way to help remember things: You could use written lists or checklists, or use sticky notes to place on mirrors or outside of doors to help give reminders.
- Find ways to use reminders that work for your teen: this could be alarm reminders set on their phone or iPad or a clock. You could use a watch that goes off at specific times for reminders. Or you could also use a planner or calendar.
- Visual Supports: We kind of already talked about this above, but setting up visual supports can really help. These can include a to-do list, calendars, planners, real objects, step by step instructions, or labels to help organize.
- Set up the environment for success: If there is a specific area of the home or a specific area at school you are wanting to help them organize think about how you can set up that space to make things as simple and easy for them to organize or put things away. Work with the teen in this process though, because you need to use a system that works for them. Everyone is different and has different ideas on what works for them. When we organized the laundry room area for my brother to allow him more independence to help put towels and certain clothes away, we used baskets where he could see into them so he could easily sort and figure out what goes where.
- Social Stories: Social stories can be used to help talk about different social situations when it comes to being organized. Such as remembering your homework, cleaning your room, keeping a clean desk and locker at school.
- Start Thinking in Questions: I learned this technique from myaspergerschild.com after learning her strategies for organization. This technique makes sense to me because I personally do this myself. I am always asking myself questions throughout the day so that I don’t forget things. This is something that you may need to teach to others as this may not come easy to them. She suggested you start by practicing by saying the questions out loud as they come up and you think about them.
- Be clear about expectations: This one is huge for me personally, when we are trying to learn something new and doing something that is hard for us we need to really be clear about our expectations. Don’t try to do too much at once. Think about one specific change that you can make to help with organization. The more you change the more you can start to feel overwhelmed and then you will be more likely to go back to your old habits or feel bad about yourself. You may get upset that you didn’t figure out a good technique to work on organization and executive function skills.
Some helpful Tips and Resources from Autistic Adults on Organizational Strategies.
I have always wanted to have a better understanding of what it is like to have autism in order to better help my brother and the clients I was serving. As professionals and as parents we have a lot to learn about autism and now with the internet, there are so many more ways to learn and hear about autism through autistic adults. I am going to do my best to help provide you with opportunities to learn from autistic adults.
Below you will find either blog posts or videos from autistic adults with information about organization strategies.
Autistic Mama has a blog post with 3 super helpful tips for executive function tips for autistic adults. She also has a free download with10 additional free tips! Check out her post Doable Executive Functioning Tips for Autistic Adults here!
The Aspie World has a YouTube Channel where he explains a lot of topics about his life with Aspergers. He has a great video about Time Management. You can check out the YouTube Video Here.
He has another video with 7 Time Management Tips you can check that out here!
Autistic Not Weird has a great post about Growing Up Autistic. It is not specifically geared towards organization skills, but it has great advice for teenagers with autism. Check it out here!
Some Helpful Products to Teach Executive Functioning and Organization Skills
Your Therapy Source has created an Executive Functioning Resource that is a digital workbook that is a step by step guide to help boost your student’s working memory, impulse control, focus, emotional control, organization, planning, and self-monitoring!
Smart but Scattered Teens: The Executive Skills Program for Helping Teens Reach Their Potential by Richard Guare, Peg Dawson, and Colin Guare created an awesome resource! This positive guide provides a science-based program for promoting teens’ independence by building their executive skills–the fundamental brain-based abilities needed to get organized, stay focused, and control impulses and emotions.
Final Thoughts on Organization tips
Organization skills are a higher level skill and it will take time to learn these skills and find a process that works for the teen you are working with. Have patience and understanding as they are trying to find a strategy that works for them. Things will hopefully go better when you can stay calm when working with them to find strategies that work for them.
One final thought, there is no specific timeline for teens to learn specific skills and understand that it is a process and everyone learns different skills at different rates and times. Autistic Mama has a great article explaining how no one knows your autistic child’s future.
Additional Resources for Organizational Strategies and Tips for Teens with Autism
Information from the National Autistic Society about Organization, Sequencing and prioritizing.
Helping your Child with Autism Get Organized video on YouTube by Autism Grown Up
Autism in the Teen Years: What to expect, how to help by Marina Sarris at the Interactive Autism Network
Here is an amazing list of Actually Autistic blogs that you can check out if you would like to learn more about autism through their point of view. https://anautismobserver.wordpress.com
Teaching Organizational Skills by Diane Adreon M.A. and Heather Willis PsyD. from the Autism Support Network
Getting Your Life Organized from Autism-Help.org
Organization Skills for Children with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism by myaspergerschild.com
Let me know in the comments below what tips and resources you find helpful or if there is anything else I should add to the list!
Rosenthal, M., Wallace, G.L., Lawson, R., Wills, M.C., Dixon, E., Yerys, B.E. & Kenworthy, L. (2013) Impairments in real-world executive function increase from childhood to adolescence in autism spectrum disorders. Neuropsychology. 2013 Jan;27(1):13-8. View abstract