Thursday, December 24, 2015

Autism and interest depletion - leveraging routines, calendars and checklists

As #2 enters late High School his interests have narrowed considerably. This means he has fewer options if he bores of the interests he does have, and increasing amounts of his time are spent in passive and compulsive screen activities that seem to produce dysphoria and ennui rather than satisfaction or happiness. It’s a common trend that seems unlikely to lead to a satisfying or independent life.

Fortunately, he’s aware of this and, when he’s not working through what I think of as an “autistic-arrest” (sudden deterioration in perception of self and context, often associated with anguish and psychic distress), he’s interested in working on it. He’s had some success, including introducing new activities like mountain biking, weekly five mile walks and routine calendar review. We’ve created an inventory of his interests categorized by:

  1. Enjoys with cravings -- time limited by parents/external actors
  2. Enjoys with cravings -- no time limited (bouncing on exercise ball in in this group)
  3. Enjoys but no compulsions — tend to get displaced by craving activities, but if initiated they are enjoyable for him
  4. Sometimes enjoys, feels good after doing. All exercise except bouncing falls into this category.
  5. Things to try — items we (he, us) have selected to try to broaden his interests and provide him with more options.

As per the book excerpt on calendaring, we’re working with him to create recurrent schedules for his Category 3-5 items, staring with book reading. He’s receiving a small stipend for each book completed; he finds it very helpful to have us give him a concrete reward for completion of a new or challenging activity. It’s a curious part of his temperament that we’ve all learned to leverage.

Our thinking about this has been supported by some archived 2007 writings by Joel Smith, an autism activist. (#2 adamantly refuses to read blogs or writings by people with autism, but I follow Joel’s current blog). Joel was using a PalmOS PDA back then, my book project is about smartphone use.

This Way of Life: Living With Executive Dysfunction (Joel Smith)

… Train yourself to follow a routine, with few deviations. The closer you follow a standard routine, the more likely you are to remember it … The more frequently you use a routine, the more likely it is to become a habit…

… solving the executive function difficulties probably won't solve the problem without you first solving the other underlying problems. In addition, your strategies will not motivate you to do a task you don't want to do. These strategies will only help you perform tasks that you want to do…

… Get rid of strategies that don't work. If, after a week you aren't able to establish the strategy, it probably won't ever actually work. If, after a month, you are still doing the strategy, you will probably be able to keep doing it…

… Sggab (amanda at finds that having someone else to watch over her helps her to complete tasks and overcome the problems with starting a task. Some people find that having others call and remind helps get a task done. However, others claim that such reminders only reinforce inertia, so this may be very individual specific…

… Kalen (news at says that an externally imposed schedule, such as the kind of schedule a student in formal education must follow, helps her start all her other routines, and also improves her overall functioning…

… I use a Palm Pilot to help organize my time. Even the cheapest Palms, such as the will help some who have executive function difficulties.

The most useful features of the Palm are the to-do lists and calendar. One of the advantages of some of the newer models is the "silent alarm" feature. Reminders can be set to alarm by vibrating instead of beeping, which allows you to get your reminders discreetly and without disturbing others in a class or event.

I also use an enhanced version of the Palm ToDo list, called “ToDo+”...

The entire article, and his reminders and checklist page, are well worth reading for other approaches to routines like eating, dressing, taking medications, paying bills and the like. I’ll be referencing his advice in the smartphone book.

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