Compensating for Autism
Not long ago, I read the post of a friend on Facebook. In her post, she was bemoaning the role of never-ending laundry in her life. Granted, she has a lot of kids in her home, but the laundry issue was getting to her.
Now, what in the world, you may be asking, does laundry have to do with autism?
We all have weaknesses. Some of the weaknesses of autists are things we cannot change about ourselves (leaving whether we want to or not for another day, and maybe also pointing out that everyone has weaknesses!)
Yet, even if we can’t change those things, we can certainly compensate for them. Compensating for autism can sometimes be done in the simplest of ways.
Many providers have suggested ways for me to decrease transition time or improve executive function. They focus on the area of difficulty and attack it.
That works sometimes, but sometimes a more indirect approach will get you to the same place, and it will get you there faster. Sometimes, compensating for autism requires gaining an advantage in an area other than the one in which you are struggling.
In my recent post for the upcoming holidays, “Autism and the Holidays: Make This Year Joyful!”, I discuss working on expectations rather than attacking frustrations. Same principle here. In addition, sometimes solutions are counterintuitive, thus my discussion of “The Counterintuitive Nature of Autism.” Yet, solutions are solutions wherever you find them and however directly they apply to the problem.
Leaving Behind Conventional Wisdom
Here I want to suggest that sometimes we have to leave behind conventional wisdom and just chase simple solutions wherever we can so that we get where we want to go.
Ever heard the story of how a woman sliced both ends of a roast off before cooking it? How generations of family members then did the same, until one day one of the family members asked the woman why she did it? Her response, “So it will fit in my pan.”
Yeah, generations of family members who had bigger, better pans than the woman had willfully wasted presumably perfectly good meat in an effort to mindlessly follow tradition. They were doing things the way they had always seen them done.
Many of us are wired that way, neurotypical and neurodiverse alike. We want to do things the way we have always done them. I see families of autists trying to get them to do things the way they have always done them.
I always find that to be ironic in a culture where people claim that it is autists who struggle with change!
That to say, the introduction of autism compounds this problem, both for the fact that some autists dislike and resist change and because sometimes their caregivers do as well, though they may resist change in different ways.
Sometimes we even fight to keep things the same when really the challenge of changing is less than the challenge of not doing so.
Really though, you sometimes have to change your behavior to get a different result.
Back to my laundry example.
The Way We Have Always Done It
We used to go around the house, and gather up everybody’s laundry. All at once. We would gather it, sort it, and start washing it. We kept on, running load after load. During the day, invariably, somebody would come home and change their clothes, producing even more laundry.
This system is the one I was taught and probably the one you were taught also. It was dubbed “efficient.”
I was told it was efficient because it filled the washer to capacity, reduced waste of soap and water, resulted in fewer loads being run in the machine over time, and thus, saved money.
So after years of being taught to do laundry this way, I fought to be successful in implementing this system.
As a byproduct, I believed that the laundry was not done until all of it was clean on one day.
And so, once I had kids, my laundry was never done. Never. Ever.
The New “Done”
At some point, when my kids were little, however, I realized that this system was totally broken. Every time I would get “done” with the laundry, I would say, “Next time, I’m gonna kill it.”
So the next time, I would use the same system and, guess what, I got the same result. It didn’t matter how hard I worked, how positive my attitude was.
Finally, one time, I said, “Okay, this is the next time.” And I thought, “How can I do the laundry differently?”
I took a very proactive approach and said, “I’m going to approach the problem differently if I want a different result.
I realized I had to change my definition of the word “done,” my expectations, and my system for doing the laundry.
“What bite-sized piece of laundry could I START AND FINISH in one day?” I asked myself.
The new “done,” I decided, would be that I completed this one bite rather than all of the laundry in the house.
The new expectation was that not all of the laundry had to be done in one day and that a system that I had been taught was inefficient (the washer and dryer were sometimes not filled to capacity) would replace the system to which I had been taught to adhere.
Finally, the new system would be that I would tackle only the laundry of one person at a time.
And so, instead of doing laundry all day, every day, until the end of the day, and having piles of laundry that needed folded, and piles of laundry that still needed washing, and clutter all over my house (I don’t even know what percentage of clutter in my house was this laundry, but it was high), I started to do the laundry this different way.
So I went in one kiddo’s room. I got all the laundry for that one kiddo, and washed it, and put it away.
I was done by about noon.
And the laundry for that day was done, and it was simple, it was easy, and there was no stress involved.
And so, the next day, I went into another kiddo’s room, and I did their laundry. I achieved the same result. The laundry was completed for the day by noon.
On both of these days, I actually felt a little bit lost. Shaking off the need to listen for the washer and dryer all afternoon, run to flip loads, fold laundry, step over piles of clutter…. It took some getting used to this new “normal.” Don’t get me wrong–it was phenomenal, but I was a bit LOST. It took a few days for me to redirect my time and energy!
With this new system I changed something I COULD change, pretty easily actually, so that I could focus on areas I COULD NOT.
- I got back a tremendous amount of time and energy.
- This system eliminated the number of transitions I experienced in one day (from another activity back to laundry back to another activity).
- It reduced the anxiety of feeling like I was “behind” on laundry.
- Gone was the clutter of piles of laundry strewn around the house.
- The frustration of never being done? Didn’t miss it!
- It took PRESSURE off me so that I could spend more time on things I needed that other people may not need, like the transitions I mentioned above, like managing my anxiety, like squeezing in doctor appointments.
- I even saw an increase in my patience level for dealing with my kiddos. No longer was I constantly saying to them, “How many times a day do you change your clothes? Do you have to change your clothes again? It was water, you got water on those clothes, and you changed them? Water dries!”
I mean, you’ve had these moments, right?
Yet We Still Resist
I shared this story with lots of women who struggle with laundry. Invariably, they are doing their laundry the same way I did. They are living with the piles to be washed, to be sorted, to be folded, and to be put away.
The vast majority of them say that maybe they will change their system someday. Knowing their system is not working, they continue to do it anyway. Knowing they could change, they not only continue on, they complain that this same system is producing the same results. Hhhmmm???
Some women tell me they will use this system when their kids are old enough to do their own laundry. Others tell me they think about changing, but changing is hard so they will do it the way they always have. Others think it is just laundry and not even worth thinking about.
I can only think their struggle is not sufficient to push them to change. It must not be so awful or they would do it differently.
So back to the question, what does this have to do with autism?
So much. Just so much.
Doing the Simple Makes the Hard Easier
You see, I don’t really get to choose whether I want to make these types of changes. On some level I do, but if I want to keep up with the world, I have to find EVERY POSITIVE CHANGE, EVERY EFFICIENCY THAT I CAN.
Because there are some changes I can’t make
There are some efficiencies I can’t achieve.
I can’t always help but lose time transitioning from one thing to another. I sometimes struggle to focus on more than one thing in life at a time. My executive function/ADD issues keep my mind occupied pretty thoroughly. I sometimes get so focused on one thing, I forget about everything else.
That is who I am.
I can be aware of my issues and try to keep them in check, but it is hard.
Changing the way I do the laundry?
Whoosh! So simple!
Yet, because I am willing to constantly be looking for everyday solutions to tough stuff, I keep up. Not only do I keep up, but no one really knows I struggle. I manage to make it all appear very doable.
Making These Changes Isn’t About a Clothesline — It is About a Lifeline
When I shared with family and friends that I received an autism diagnosis, many were stunned. Yet, I knew from the time I was tiny that I had to do things differently – work harder or smarter (ha! How often do you think of an autist working smarter? Time to start!) or sometimes both – in order to keep up and be successful.
More than that, so much of what I accomplish results from these types of everyday simple solutions. So much so that people doubt that I struggle at all. I fall into that category of people who are accused of making up their diagnosis.
Those who see me in action, the behind the scenes stuff, however, don’t doubt it at all.
Even still, I fall into a category of people stereotyped as resistant to change. Like so many things in life, the people for whom something is the hardest, sometimes need it the most. Letting go of the need or want to have things remain the same is certainly a contender to be the most important thing I could ever have done for myself.
As I write for Her Autism, people ask me to share the things that specifically help me with my autism. They suggest that I am writing about everyday stuff when they want scientific, research-backed, autism-specific solutions.
To those people, I respond that this change in how I do my laundry has nothing to do with a clothesline and everything to do with these simple everyday solutions being an absolute lifeline to me and that no one should be fooled by their apparent simplicity.
They are so very much needed.
There is No Shame in Success
I read about parents who fear for the future of their children (here is a well-written article by just such a mom), and that fear in many cases is real. That to say, chasing simple solutions is a must.
If I could not see and implement these types of simple, everyday solutions, I would not be able to live independently, raise kids, manage their physical and mental health issues, earn a living, etc., even with my intelligence intact.
That is the magnitude of importance of these solutions for me.
I depend on them.
Compensating for autism bothers me not at all. Not keeping up with everyone else drives me nuts. A simple choice with a simple solution.
If you are an autist, embrace the little, simple, affordable things you can do to optimize what you can do in this life. If identifying and implementing change is not your strength, start small and grow from where you are. Try more and more types of changes.
If you are raising an autist, teach them to identify and implement these types of changes. It is not always going to be easy. And maybe, just maybe, one of the hardest things you will have to endure in teaching them this skill is modeling it for them, because, I think for most people it does not come naturally.
In addition, the methods your kiddos come up with may look a bit odd at first. Ask yourself whether odd is enough of a reason to pass on an opportunity to make the impossible doable.
My challenge to you this week–find one thing, one pain point, one bottleneck that stops you, and find a new way to approach it. It can be super simple. Just find one. You’ve got this because…
You are enough, just you.