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A More Organized Life - Part 4

Welcome to Part 4: Guiding Your Child to Become Organized

If you missed Part 3: The More You Know, the Better You Can Organize - Exploring your child’s world, please click here.


Guiding Your Child to Become Organized

Children, whether on the autism spectrum or not, can be very disorganized due to any or all of the following:

  • not yet able to understand the concept of time,

  • inability to predict natural outcomes,

  • very slow at processing information, and

  • immature executive function (EF).

EF is the ability to see the big picture – prioritize, sequence and plan ahead. When executive function skills are age appropriately developed it’s easier to be organized. When EF is not fully developed it can make tasks, like chores, doing homework or balancing a checkbook more difficult. Navigating through life with immature executive functioning skills will make life much more challenging.

The assumption is made that individual executive functioning skills are acquired naturally as we develop and that formal training is not necessary. This is not the case for many, especially those individuals who experience the world differently. A person with an Autism Spectrum Disorder will most likely struggle with developing EF. And it’s a great disservice to presume that those on the spectrum with higher IQ’s, such as those with Asperger’s, have mastered the art of executive function.

Homework is one area where executive functioning skills are extremely important for a child to experience a positive outcome. Rather than avoiding the task of doing homework or making extreme accommodations for the student, it’s imperative that EF/organizational skills are directly taught. Organizational skills are life skills, not just school skills.

By the time a child enters middle school the organizational systems required to complete homework properly are very complex.

Here are 5 strategies to help your child become more organized:

1. Communicate clearly and be specific. When it comes to something like chores or homework, be very detailed about what needs to occur. To do this successfully you need to be very organized in your own thinking. And you need to expand your thinking to the way your child’s mind takes in information. Using what you know about your child as we discussed in Part 3, apply only those strategies you know he can relate to.

Make no assumptions! Always look through your child’s autism lens and speak in your child’s language. This may require you to think in visual terms. Use words that convey images to help your child think in pictures. And it’s always good to ask your child to repeat what you said in order to verify understanding.

2. Establish well defined habits for school and home activities. Children who create school morning rituals, who do chores or homework at regular times, or who put materials away in the same place are reducing stress on their memory and attention systems, as well as establishing lifelong habits which support productivity. Same thing, same time, same place, same way should be your child’s mantra.

3. Develop specific routines to address problem areas. For example, the child that can't get out the door on time in the morning can pick out school clothes and pack up his school backpack the night before. Use visuals or picture schedules whenever possible.

Set up a large master calendar that clearly displays schedules, appointments, and deadlines. Post "To Do" and "To Buy" lists, team schedules, appointments, or even family chores. Save tickets and receipts in a large manila envelope tacked to the bulletin board. Use a large metal clip to collect school notices and permission slips.

4. Address the environment. Organize the essential materials your child needs to complete chores or homework in one place, such as the duster, broom and dustpan for chores or notebooks, folders, paper and pencil for doing homework. In addition, the lunch money, library books, or sports equipment can be kept organized in a special, specific place. If possible, arrange cubbies, buckets or boxes accordingly with picture labels for identification.

5. Notice and reward organizational skills. Use praise to acknowledge progress going in the right direction. Never dish out lazy praise. Statements such as “great job”, “good boy”, etc. are too vague. Be specific so your child will know exactly what he did so he can do it again. The self-satisfaction your child will feel when you recognize her efforts, and when she experiences positive results from her effort will self- motivate her to do more of the same.

Older children need to develop a mindset through experience that organization will make their lives easier! This will instill internal motivation that will propel your child’s executive function skills forward with less coaching from you.

Younger children need to be told, explained to, shown and given concrete and literal instructions (ex. The round white dishes go here), as well as lots of PRACTICE!

Remember - The best habits, routines, and systems are structured yet flexible and based on need. Once established, regularly evaluate and adjust as necessary. Highly detailed and rigid schedules may only increase the anxiety of children with learning differences so keep it simple and make room for some flexibility within the structure you create.

I hope you have enjoyed this series on organization.

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