Safe Spaces: A Post That is In No Way About Whiny College Students and Is About Home Decorating

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When you’re autistic, most of the world doesn’t feel particularly safe. It feels confusing, unpredictable, overwhelming, and irritating. Basic daily living is like being bombarded, whether from a sensory perspective, a social perspective, or an ableist perspective.

So we’re going to talk about what I do to make myself one damn space that feels safe. I’m taking back the concept of a safe space from those who want to use it as evidence of weakness or infantilization. I’m a grown ass woman and I need a safe space to survive. If you’ve never lived feeling as if your home is unsafe, then you get to shut up and sit down. Yes I’m salty because this is important.

And because I’m autistic, this conversation about safe spaces has nothing to do with free speech, with what words you can and cannot say, or with interacting with other people at all. It has to do with creating yourself a haven.

I spoke at a conference about making life more sensory friendly as an adult recently, and after my presentation, a young woman asked me about a specific problem in her apartment that was causing her immense distress. She started to tear up when she said “I just don’t feel safe in my own home.” I have been that person. I have lived with people who didn’t understand or respect my sensory needs, while I was unable to articulate those needs and ended up on the brink of suicide. I have known what it’s like to find any nook or cranny out in the world so you can hide late into the night before you force yourself to return home.

Every person deserves at least one place in the world where they can feel truly relaxed. One space where they are not guarding against trauma or triggers, where their senses feel calm, where they can let their guard down. Humans are not built to constantly exist in a state of heightened stress and anxiety. It’s exhausting and it’s unhealthy.

The solution? Prioritize having a safe space in your own home. This is not always possible. Sometimes you have to live with roommates you don’t love for financial reasons. Sometimes you’re stuck with your parents. Other folks might have the ability and luxury to say that it’s a trade they’re willing to make. I suggest that neurodivergent folks think carefully about the toll that living somewhere uncomfortable takes on them. I know that it was not something I could tolerate. Even when you do share living spaces, it’s possible to ask for an area that is yours and yours alone, which you can decorate and fill as you choose. I highly recommend trying to create even a single room where you feel as if you can breathe easy.

That’s a lot of preamble when what I really want to talk about are the practical steps and solutions to a variety of sensory and anxiety related problems and stressors, and the variety of ways that you can create a contained space to address those stressors.

Let’s start with sensory concerns. I’ll note that when it comes to sensory needs there are two directions you can go: you can be hypo sensitive (under sensitive) or hyper sensitive (over sensitives). Both of those are real needs and should be addressed when creating a safe space in your home.

We’ll briefly run through the different senses and talk about ways you can accommodate them, but I highly suggest being creative. Googling “sensory gym” is a great place to start if you want ideas, otherwise you could consult with an occupational therapist. Make it your own: I like to have artwork that makes me smile to look at, colors that are mine, etc. Even if it’s not sensory perfect, it feels so much better when I’ve set it up MY way and it’s MY things

Sight
Sight will in many ways determine how you decorate any space that you consider a safe space. If you tend to be sensory seeking you’ll probably want bright colors, a lot of decor in pictures and textures, and possibly some fidgets with movement (a la a lava lamp). On the other hand, if you’re sight sensitive, you’ll want soft or dim lighting (definitely avoid fluorescents), decor that is minimal and easy on the eye, simplified workspaces with minimal clutter, and low screen brightness if you’re using screens.

Sound
If you’re sensory-seeking around sound, it can be tough to get your fix without irritating other people, so I’d highly recommend getting some noise-cancelling headphones so that you can crank up your volume without bothering housemates. You may also want to spend time identifying which kinds of sounds appeal to you: maybe you’ll want to learn an instrument, maybe you’re into ASMR, maybe you like to listen to music. On the other hand, if you’re sound-aversive there are a few different levels at which you can manage noise. First, if it’s possible to find a room in your home that is well insulated and add wall coverings or thick carpet, you can dampen most of the noise that way. If that’s not possible or enough, you can also use headphones or earplugs. Finally if THAT’S not enough you can also try a white noise machine to keep particular irritating sounds from getting to you.

Touch
Creating a safe space when you are sensory-seeking around touch can be quite the undertaking. That’s not because it’s hard to find ways to get input: it’s because there are so many and it’s so hard to choose and make space. You may also want a variety of types of touch and may need to have more than one space to properly meet all those needs. So for example you may want a comfy, cozy nest, which you could build with pillows and blankets that are incredibly soft. But you may also like other textures, and want mermaid pillows with sequins, or something with a bumpy or prickly texture, or perhaps something squishy. If you can incorporate all of that into one space then awesome! If not, you may need to be able to switch out your safe space, have more than one, or choose soft as a major texture and then use fidgets to bring in other textures (fidget rings, sponges, pillows, etc.)

On the other hand, if you are sensitive to textures you’ll want to think about when textures feel the least intrusive. Is it something soft? Is it when you’re taking a bath? Is it when you’re getting deep pressure? Do your clothes cause irritation? Based on your answers to those questions, you can build the space you need.

Smell
If you are the kind of person who seeks out interesting smells, your house is a great place to go wild. Bring in some flowers. Get some scented candles. Buy a variety of perfumes you can play with when you want to. If you’re not into chemical scents, Lush has strong smells that aren’t quite as harsh, or you could try essential oils. You may also want to pay attention to the different things smells can do: do you want to feel more alert? Try peppermint. Would you like to relax? Lavender is a great option.

If you cannot handle most scents, you’ll want to go in the far opposite direction. Scent-free cleaning products can reduce the overall smells, and you’ll also want to discuss with housemates if they can avoid using scents in communal areas (no candles, plug ins, etc.). Having a window nearby for fresh air is essential if scents get to you. You may also need to have headache meds on hand or whatever it is that helps you when you do get overwhelmed by scent.

Proprioception
Proprioception is the awareness of your body in space. It’s typically activated by pressure or movement. People often will regulate their proprioception with jumping, flapping, toe walking, etc. So if you need more on the proprioceptive side, your safe space may actually be more like a sensory gym, with crash pads that you can run into, a hammock or climbing wall, places to crawl or push up, stress balls and grip strengtheners, weighted blankets and vests. There are many people who report needing more proprioceptive input, and this can often be very active input. Even if you don’t have space for a full sensory gym, there are small fidgets you can use, you can roll around on the floor (yeah it looks weird but it works), or you can use resistance bands to create pressure. A final thing to note: low proprioceptive input can lead to clumsiness, so you may want your safe space to be cushy and easy to land on in case you fall or run into things easily.

Other folks feel overwhelmed by proprioceptive input. You’ll want somewhere that’s easily loungable, where you can feel low impact on your body through pillows and soft seating. You may also want to consider loose clothing, or even a bath as that can feel soft on the joints. Looking up ways to decompress your spine or ease your joints can also help: maybe you like heat on your joints or hanging upside down for decompression.

Vestibular
Last but not least we have the vestibular sense, which is what helps us balance. For folks who want more vestibular input, the sensory gym is again going to be a great option. Inverting your head gives good input, as do things like rock climbing, aerial arts, dancing, swinging, balancing, bouncing, and rocking. If you have the space, you can hang swings, create a small rock wall, or add bars to hang from. If you have less space, exercise balls are a great option for balance, spinning can help, and even wearing high heels gives some great feedback. 

On the other hand, if you dislike vestibular input, you’ll probably get nauseous easily and dislike those types of movement. Slow, predictable movements with deep pressure can help to calm your vestibular sense. That might mean lying on your back and gently moving your legs, or even staying totally still. Another thing to keep on hand would be nausea meds.

 

 

You might notice that there are a couple of senses that I’ve left out, specifically taste and interoception (the awareness of your internal processes, like hunger or the need to use the bathroom). The reason I left them off is because those generally are senses that either you have to seek out (taste) or that you simply have to respond to. If you want yummy food or reminders to pay attention to your interoception, you can customize your space as needed!

The second set of considerations for your safe space are supports for anxiety. Again, this will be something that you’ll need to customize to your own likes and needs, however I like to keep reminders of all the skills that I typically use for managing anxiety. That might be a list of DBT skills, or a list of the people I trust, or notes of common mindfulness practices. It’s also important that your safe space has all the tools that you need to actually use those skills.

For example I often use my weighted blanket when I’m anxious so I would want that to be stored in my safe space. If I do a guided meditation, I’d want the script or app at hand. Speaking of having things at hand, another important element of a safe space for anxiety is to have all the things you might need for basic fulfillment (like food, sleep, drink) easily at hand. One of the easiest ways to quickly reduce anxiety is to ensure that all those needs are fulfilled, so it’s important to include them in a safe space.

I also like to make sure that if I need to, I can have another person around, but that it’s generally solitary. Pay attention to your preferences about socialization. You might want to have a trusted someone around all the time.

Finally, I try to create a space that is full of things that make me smile. You might like to include mantras or reminders that help remind you of how great you are. I personally prefer having pictures or decor that’s 100% me and that makes me smile. I personally have Pinterested quite a bit to figure out what aesthetic helps me feel calmer, then tried to incorporate that in my spaces. Sometimes it’s as simple as “I really like hexagons and colors” so you put a mural on the wall.

It might seem frivolous, or like that will never make a difference, but don’t knock it till you try it. There’s something surprisingly calming about a space that feels like your own, and one of the fastest ways to put your imprint on a space is to add things to the walls or put up some paint.

What tips do you have for creating a safe space in your home?

Hacking Your Executive Function: Sensory Memory

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Sometimes no matter how hard you try to find ways to support your memory or accommodate and use a different tactic, a task just requires you to use working memory and it’s a challenge. Good thing there are ways you can actually improve your working memory. Let’s talk a bit about those today.

Today’s post is similar to a lot of the other things I’ve recommended in other areas because it fucking works bebes. But now we’re going to get specific for memory. Here’s the trick: USE YOUR BODY.

Simple? Yes. Hard to implement? Sometimes. Effective? Hell yeah. One of the things that is particularly taxing on working memory is that we either totally abstract things or use a single sense (usually visual or verbal) to try to remember things. If you can incorporate multiple senses into your memory, you’ll be strengthening the memory and making it easier to hold on to. You can use the senses later to trigger the memory.

Let’s talk specifics. Singing or rhyming introduces a new element to a memory. It might feel a little bit kiddish, but creating a short song that tells you the steps to a project or contains all the information will make it MUCH easier to remember. You might also associate a color or a shape to go with particular facts. If you have a visual in front of you that will help immensely, but even just visualizing it internally can help too. If you’re a doodler, embrace the doodle! When you’re figuring out a new process, you could doodle the steps instead of just writing them down. Some people like to choose a specific place to look in order to remember information, so you tie the name of someone at a party to the red chair in the corner, and when you look at the red chair in the corner it will help you trigger “Jacob”.

Scent is an incredibly strong memory trigger, so while it could be hard to incorporate it into memory, if you’re really struggling you could try using essential oils to associate different memories with different scents. You could also imagine a scent to associate it with particular memories. Flowers or foods could be great places to start since they’ve got strong scents we know well.

Something that could be incredibly fun to play with would be incorporating taste into your working memory. Let’s say you struggle to remember all your possessions in the morning. What if you assigned an element of your breakfast to each item you need? Orange juice is your phone, yogurt is your keys, blueberries are your bag, strawberries are your planner. As you eat your breakfast you can take a mental checklist of all the things that you need. This can be comboed with scent fairly easily I’d imagine.

Moving around while you work to remember something can also improve the memory. It turns out that general physical exercise improves your memory, but some studies also indicate that gesturing while you try to remember something, or acting out what you’re trying to remember will improve your ability to hold on to it. Working out before trying to remember something increases retention, and if you’re having a hard time with your memory, getting up and moving around can improve your abilities.

When it comes to working memory that might mean doing some quick jumping jacks before you try to cook something so that you can hold a bit more in your brain while you’re following the recipe. Or it might mean power walking on the treadmill while you read instructions for a task you’ll do later, then rereading when you have to do the task. Or perhaps it’s spending 20 minutes working on a project, then 5-10 minutes on a trampoline or bouncing a ball. Even just working regular exercise into your weekly routine can make improvements in your working memory, so setting aside 30 minutes a day to go for a walk can help boost working memory.

The more consistently you focus a particular piece of information on a sense or tie it to an external marker, the easier it will be to remember, so if you have challenges remembering what order to wash in the shower, or you’ll forget if you already shampooed, you might add rubber duckies along the side of your tub and associate each one with a task you do in the shower. When you do the task, you could look at the ducky, or move the ducky from one side of the tub to the other. After a while these memories will be so routine that you don’t have to rely as much on working memory.

Again: none of these things alone will “fix” your working memory or make tasks like organization and planning easy. But it may make it easi-ER and that will allow you to start incorporating other supports until hopefully cleaning the house, or remembering where you are in a task doesn’t feel insurmountable or cause intense anxiety.

Next we’ll talk more about the mental ways that you can improve working memory, and then onwards!

Hacking Your Executive Function: Unexpected Transitions

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Most of what we’ve talked about up to this point are when you can plan ahead for a transition. You know it will be coming, you have an idea of what your day will hold, and you can give yourself extra time or use skills to make the transition easier. But sometimes we have to unexpectedly go from one thing to another. Maybe we get interrupted from a project during the day and we have to immediately move to a more pressing task. Maybe you’re out with friends and they decide to change plans. Maybe an emergency comes up. We all have times where our plans get derailed and we have to quickly switch to something new.

One thing you can do is practice your flexibility. This is the part you CAN do ahead of time so that those skills are strong and ready to be used at a moment’s notice. If you can set aside a day where you’ve got time and emotional reserves (ok this might be a ridiculous dream), try switching between different tasks and noticing how you feel, what makes it easier, etc. I recommend starting this out with things you like so that you’re not trying to really accomplish stuff and you don’t have to worry about the anxiety around the task itself, just around the transition. Maybe you pick two tasks and set an alarm for every hour, then move back and forth between them.

Once you start to feel more comfortable switching between tasks you like, you can try to introduce more challenging tasks, or have someone else give you an unexpected task. You can also use a friend to help you practice creating a new plan or expectation in the moment, which is another way to prep ahead of time. Maybe you want to test out having a day or have a day or an hour where you don’t decide ahead of time what you’re going to do. You can practice deciding what to do and how to do it on the fly. To get advanced, set aside the time then have a friend suggest the activity so you can figure out how to accomplish it unexpectedly.

Again, these in advance skills are things that I would only recommend practicing if you have the time and feel emotionally stable when you want to practice them. I’d also suggest having a plan B in place for if you start to melt down or feel overwhelmed so that you can do some self care if you start to struggle with the transitions. However the more you practice these things, the easier it will get to do them in the wild when unexpected transitions appear. You may have to start by practicing in a very intentional way (you get an unexpected transition, you stop and write down what you’re planning to do and how you’re going to do it, you do emotion regulation techniques, then you begin the next task), but I have found that the more I do it the less I have to consciously work through a transition.

There are also some things you can do in specific situations that will help you. I generally try to overplan, meaning have a couple of different options for any plan that I create. It’s like a choose your own adventure book! I’ll have my first plan, which is what I would like to happen. But if I know it’s possible that something might go down differently I’ll have an alternate version of my plan to accommodate. I try not to go overboard with this though because once you start hitting four or five different versions of the same plan it tends to cause more anxiety than it’s worth and eat up a LOT of your time. Be reasonable. Make contingency plans for things that are LIKELY to happen, not every possibility in the whole world. Practice recognizing that something may happen you haven’t planned for and then forcing yourself to stop planning.

Sometimes it also helps to create an order when it feels like things are out of control. The order doesn’t have to make sense: it can be totally arbitrary. If I get a bunch of new projects thrown at me unexpectedly I’ll write them all down and sometimes just pick one, any one, and say that I have to start there. Getting started is more important than prioritizing correctly. Another example would be if an unexpected emergency comes up. Let’s say your spouse gets a flat tire and calls to ask you to come help. I might give myself five minutes to jot down what the steps of that task would be, then give myself a clear reward afterwards. I can tell myself “first I will drive to pick them up, then I will help them change the tire, then I will stop for ice cream on the way home. I can finish my current task at x time.” Having a clear place to pick back up on what you thought you would do also helps alleviate the anxiety.

Last but not least I find it helpful when faced with an unexpected change to notice what’s actually upsetting me about the situation. Am I upset that I can’t do something I was planning on doing? How important was that thing? Do I actually want to do the new thing more? Am I frustrated that I can’t complete what I was in the middle of? I may have another time I can finish it, or I can remind myself that things aren’t all or nothing, it’s ok to do part of something then come back. Is it not knowing exactly what’s about to happen? I can ask more questions to determine what’s going on, or else just make some decisions for myself (this happens a lot in a social group when no one can decide where you’re going. I’ve taken to just saying what we’re doing because generally people will agree). I think we often get hung up on trying to figure out what’s “right” or makes the most sense when we’re trying to plan or put together a schedule, but it’s surprising how often just doing SOMETHING is more effective.

That’s all I’ve got for you on transitions! Drop any extra hints or tricks in the comments. Next up? Working memory.

Hacking Your Executive Function: Transitions That Aren’t Tasks

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Most of the “transitions” that we talk about when we’re looking at executive function are tasks. This gets ingrained early on because accomplishing things is the #1 priority of our shitty capitalist society and also because school tends to be a list of tasks that must be accomplished. But sometimes there are other types of transitions: transitioning from place to place. Transitioning between different people. Transitioning from one environment (and self presentation) to another. Today we’re going to talk about some strategies specific to other types of transitions.

Let’s start by talking about places. There are three elements to actually switching physical locations that I find challenging: first is that sometimes I have not been to a place before and I find the unknown anxiety provoking. Second is that driving places is boring and stress inducing, and public transit can be challenging. Travel time always feels like a waste to me. Third is that when you need to leave the house or leave work you are adding in a lot of extra steps to getting to your next task, whether that’s putting on pants or making sure you don’t forget your purse. Let’s have a look at each element.

First, you can make transitions a little bit easier by prepping ahead of time. If I’ve never been to a location before I like to look it up online, see if I can find pictures, check out maps, and prepare for how long it will take me to get there. If it’s something fairly important I may even visit the location ahead of time just to feel more comfortable. I always like to know where I can escape to if I get overwhelmed in a new location, so you might take time to identify a quiet space. I generally also try to give myself extra time to get from one place to another in case I get lost or need extra time to transition once I arrive. I’ve mentioned before that using your body can help get your brain active and ready for the next thing. I like to walk or bike when I can to put some space between one place and the next in a really physical way.

What about travel? Well we could do a whole series on how challenging transit is when you’re disabled, but I’m going to focus on methods for making it less stressful here. One thing I do is avoid areas that I know are challenging for me. I almost never drive downtown, I try to leave early if I have to get somewhere around rush hour (I’ll go to a nearby coffee shop or library to kill time), and I give myself permission to just pay for an expensive parking ramp if I know parking is going to be a challenge. If you know that certain areas/times/elements increase your anxiety, just don’t do them. Parallel parking? I’d rather walk an extra block. Sometimes it helps to have a friend or buddy who can help you navigate, or who can drive if it gets too dark for you.

I also like to try to keep my commutes interesting. I listen to podcasts or create playlists that will keep my energy up. Sometimes I’ll practice mindfulness in the car. If I’m taking a bus I always bring a book or a game to play (this is especially helpful for stopping strangers from speaking to you). Audiobooks are another great option. Although I still hate driving, I find that it doesn’t feel like as much of an imposition when I have something fun and interesting to do at the same time, or at least it doesn’t feel like I’ve completely wasted my time.

The final element that I find the most challenging about transitioning out of a space is how many steps there are to it. This brings in a social piece that I find particularly difficult. When you’re simply transitioning from one task to another, you generally just have to mentally disengage and then reengage. With physical transitions you need to figure out how to end the conversation/interaction that you might be having in one space, locate all of your items, determine if you need to bring new items with you, find a route to your new location, and make sure you know how to get there. That’s a lot of stuff.

Some of this you can do ahead of time: I always try to know all the locations I’ll be headed during the day and how I’ll get there in advance. I also try to grab all of the items I’ll need during the day and keep them in my car, so I spend some extra time the evening before and in the morning to prepare. Some of it is more immediate. It can help to have a basic script that you use to end conversations. I often like to use my schedule to help myself feel like it’s ok to leave (especially if I like someone). So instead of just trying to leave I’ll say “oh I have to get to work” or “I have to get home and eat dinner” so that I feel less like I’m abandoning someone. Putting together a script for ending conversations can be challenging but I suggest you practice it and think about it in advance if leaving is something you struggle with.

The last element that can be challenging is that you need to rely on working memory to acquire all the relevant possessions. I don’t bring purses with me anymore because I would always leave them places. Instead I’ve downsized to a phone case that holds my credit cards and ID, plus my keys. I try to always keep all my materials together and leave them in the same place (for locations that I go to regularly). If I don’t need to bring something with me, I leave it in my car. I also like to leave some extra things in my car just in case: a sweater or sweatshirt, a waterbottle, a phone charger. That helps diminish the pressure to always remember all the things I need.

As if that weren’t enough, there are often other types of transitions built in to moving from one place to another. One that has its own set of rules and that I have almost never seen discussed is transitioning between different people and different types of people. Basically, depending upon who you’re around you have to present yourself differently. I use a different vocabulary around my mother than I do around my husband, and I discuss different topics with my boss than I do with my aerials instructor. Shifting mindsets to know what’s appropriate and how to act in each of these situations is its own type of transition.

I try to never go immediately from one type of person to another. I at least give myself drive time or some space to reset my brain. I’ll also think about what’s coming next, or imagine the beginning of the social situation to ease myself into it. When I can, I like to have a different outfit for each type of person. It can be incredibly helpful to signal how I should hold myself. Wearing my workout leggings to work feels weird and signals that I should be casual, so it helps me relax when I put them on to be at home or at aerials.

If you’re struggling with appropriate behavior for different types of people, or with your different worlds getting all mixed up (like that time I said “balls deep” to my boss), you could go back to basics. This link gives a very simplified version of the “circles theory”, which helps you place different people in rings close or further from yourself. Different behaviors are appropriate for different circles. You could use a visual of this nature to help remind you of the language, topics, dress, etc. that are appropriate to each social group. Keep it in a purse or car so you can pull it out and remind yourself while you transition.

I think that’s quite enough for now! Look out for the final post on transitions soon.

Hacking Your Executive Function: Starting a Fresh Task During a Transition

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Ok transitionistas (transitionistos? Transitionexes?) let’s say we’ve finished up one task, we’ve managed to disengage and now we need to get moving right along to the next one with minimal distraction, anxiety, and confusion. Let’s lay out a few of the ways that you can make your life easier in getting from thing 1 to thing 2.

The first set of strategies I’m going to recommend comes before you’ll even need to make the transition. These are the things you’ll do when you’re planning your day, organizing your tasks, or getting ready for the day. Oftentimes if you set yourself up correctly you’ll need minimal support in the moment. When you’re setting up your schedule, there are a few things that can help: making a visual schedule so that you can see what’s happening and emotionally prep yourself. You can also do this by numbering your tasks or listing them in the order that they’ll happen. Anything that you can do to visualize your next step or have a concrete order is great.

In addition to a task list or schedule you can do this in other ways. You might write yourself a short social narrative, or even just say it in your head or aloud (first I’m going to wash the dishes, then I’m going to put the dishes away). It sounds silly, but cueing yourself with a first, then type of narrative gives your brain more ways to process the transition. If you’re a highly visual person you might like to have pictograms or images that indicate your next task and post the image for your next task on your computer screen or next to your desk.

In addition to creating these kinds of reminders, you can also organize your day to help improve transitions. I highly recommend building in time for a short break between tasks so that if you’re struggling you can regulate yourself and get back to what you do. I personally like to have something planned for those breaks, whether it’s doing something that I find fulfilling on a sensory level, going for a quick walk, grabbing a snack, or reading for five minutes. I think it’s always good to get your body involved in some fashion during these breaks. Movement does a lot to refresh our brains and get us mentally active if we’re losing focus. Use that!

It’s also always easier to move from something you like less to something you like more, so I generally tend to stack my days so that the hardest stuff is towards the beginning of the day and then I can move to easier and easier work. You may want to notice when you’re the most productive/energetic and build in your hardest tasks then so that you can take advantage of your best focus. This might mean you start out strong, or perhaps you have a couple tasks in the morning that are easy to get started, or maybe you build through the day to the hardest task.

You can also practice transitions moving from harder to easier things. Maybe you know you struggle with moving to a new task, so you set aside an afternoon during which you’ll only spend an hour per task and you order them from least pleasant to most pleasant. The more you practice the easier it will be.

The last organizational tactic I’d recommend is creating routines. A note about routines: it’s easy to become overly dependent on them to the point that we don’t have any flexibility. I try to practice doing something differently every few weeks, or always having a plan B in my pocket just in case things don’t go as planned. However creating routines and patterns in an intentional way means you don’t have to think and plan each step of your day every time you want to do it. It also means that the transitions become easier because you’re used to them and you always know what’s coming next.

I try to have a few different “scripts” or routines that I can run during the day, then I can build a complete schedule out of those blocks. For example, I have a morning routine at work, I have a cleaning routine, I have a routine for when I’m working out after work, I have a routine for doing freelance work. In any given day I might put those together in a different order, but instead of having to transition between ten or twenty different tasks I only have to transition between three or four preset routines.

So once you’ve set yourself up for success, you still need to actually do the transition! One of the things that I often feel during transitions is anxiety, so I strongly recommend taking a look back at the emotion regulation strategies and thinking about what you could employ to decrease anxiety, frustration, confusion, or anger. It can help to have an object, food, or person nearby that helps keep you calm or makes you feel good, and you may even want to incorporate a reward of some kind into the next activity (when I had to transition to practicing piano as a child I’d get a handful of chocolate chips to eat while I practiced).

I also like to create external reminders that pull me in to the next task, whether that’s setting up a particular area to get me started on the next thing (when I go to stretch in the evenings part of my transition is to pull out a yoga mat and put on Youtube. Those environmental cues get me ready to start), or simply having all the elements you need to do the task readily available (instead of waiting until I need to work on my iPad, I keep it near my bed or in my bag so that I can get to it quickly).

Just as it’s helpful to have a concrete way to end a task, it can also be helpful to start the same way each time. Whether that’s having a cup of coffee when you sit down to write or putting on your running shoes when you work out, if you have one consistent element that will help cue you in, it makes life easier. If you can’t have that, I sometimes like to create something: perhaps play a particular song when I start opening my e-mails or take five minutes to set up my planner before I begin my work each day. It might be as simple as closing your eyes, changing your seating position, and paying attention to your breath for thirty seconds. Any way that you can cue your body that it’s time to start something is helpful.

And of course, all of the strategies we covered in the initiation section are also great tools. Good luck transitioners!

Hacking Your Executive Function: Transitions

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Welcome to transition week! We’re going to be spending some time focusing on what executive functioning skills and tricks you can use to make it easier to move from one task, thought, or place to another. This may seem incredibly specific, but many people with autism and ADHD struggle with effectively changing their focus, so it’s getting a whole section of its own.

People struggle with a number of types of transitions. One that gets addressed a lot is specific to kids in school when they need to move from one assignment to the next or one class to the next, but I find myself struggling with transitions in all kinds of places: getting out the door and moving to another location. Ending an activity and doing something else. Leaving social situations, which is not only a transition but also a social communication moment so it’s got some extra levels of difficulty.

Sometimes it’s tough to move from one thought to another: I’ll get stuck need to complete a thought or follow something through to its conclusion and can’t move on (this bit me in the butt a lot in school when I was writing papers because I had to explore EVERY thought completely, which meant I would write pages and pages beyond what I was supposed to and couldn’t ever cut it down). One that I have rarely heard mentioned is moving from one person to another. For me this is specifically when those people are parts of different social circles and I have to adjust to different contexts, it can be incredibly difficult to turn off the one version of myself and turn on the other one.

The skills we’re going to talk about this week will apply to some (and maybe all) of these types of transitions, but hopefully throughout the week I’ll address each of them. Sometimes it’s helpful to even identify something as a transition so that you can give yourself more time or insert a break in between the two things.

One of the challenging things about transitions is that moving from one task to another isn’t one skill. It’s a lot of skills, but we don’t typically break it down because for many of us these skills come naturally. First you have to decide when and how you will end one task. You have to remove your focus and attention from that task. You have to figure out how to clean it up/save your work/put away the component. Then you have to determine what you’ll do next and in what order, figure out what you need for the next task and how to get it, acquire all of it, and bring your focus to a new task. All of this needs to be done without getting distracted, without sensory overload, in the correct order, and in many cases while interacting with other people.

I highly recommend looking at all of those steps if you’re struggling with transitions. Which one are you getting stuck on? Did you forget certain steps? Would it help to write out the sequence you need to follow? You can tailor your skills to fit the part that you’re having trouble with. If it’s figuring out what to do next, perhaps write a to do list in advance. If it’s ending the task, work on visual timers or giving yourself concrete stopping points. We’ll talk more about all of those types of skills in later posts this week.

There are a couple of elements of neurodivergent brains that can make it harder to transition. I’d like to call them out so we can reference them when we talk about skills. The first is hyperfocus, which is especially pertinent for autistic brains. If you become hyperfocused on a project, it becomes much more challenging to pull your attention away and end it. There’s also sensory overload: you might be changing environments and sensory inputs during a transition which makes it a prime time for sensory overload. Transitions also require putting things in order, following the sequence, and understanding how the steps relate, which is its whole own element of executive functioning (I’ll be writing about it in a bit). Finally, transition is a prime opportunity for distractions to arise, especially if you’re going to a new location.

Any one of these elements can break down in the process of transition. It can help to figure out which one you’re struggling with and tailor your solutions to that problem.

A final element that I have experienced around transitions and that I know other people experience is anxiety. If you’re not certain how to start the next task, that can be anxiety provoking. If you’re not sure what’s coming next that’s even worse. While I’ll be focusing on practical suggestions in this section, I highly recommend heading back to the emotion regulation posts if you are struggling with a lot of anxiety around transitions. You can pair skills from emotion regulation with the skills we’ll address in this transition section to be effective and feel better.

So now that we’ve identified the challenges of transitions, we’ll head on in to some solutions. Look for a second post soon!

Hacking Your Executive Function: Emotion Regulation and Self Care

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Welcome back to the Emotion Regulation section of our Executive Function series! I hope that you’re not surprised to see the term self care cropping up here, because it’s a very popular concept right now, and I think it’s one that’s often misunderstood so we’re going to dive into how you can use self care concepts to keep your mood in a good place and to manage bad moods.

Self care includes any and all actions that take care of yourself. Duh. Obvious (so many of our emotion regulation things are). But that means it’s not always things that feel good. Self care is all about balance: doing things that will help you feel better in the future because you’re healthy and housed and so on, as well as things that help to fill you up in the moment.

Let’s start with the hard bits of self care. The first thing I’d note on this list is that if you’re going to prioritize self care (which you’ll want to do if you want your emotions to be reasonably stable and not overwhelming), you have to take care of your health. That means making doctors appointments on the regs, getting in to the dentist, going to the grocery store so that you have decent food to eat, getting up and moving around on a regular basis, taking time off when you’re sick, getting vaccines, and so on. This is your long term self care plan.

These are hard things to do. We’ll get into some strategies for how to plan for them as we dive deeper into executive function, but one thing that I want to note is that there’s a kind of chicken and egg situation with executive function: the more you get on top of your ongoing adulting type tasks, the more your emotions will stay up, and the easier it will feel to keep doing those tasks. Even if you can add one of these types of tasks to your regular schedule, it should start building on itself.

I’d recommend having a journal or notebook where you can write down things like your last dentist appointment, your last physical, tracking your sleep, all those basic things that keep your body going strong and keep you from getting behind on important things (like bills, cleaning your home, etc.).

An important element of these types of self care is remembering to say no sometimes. That means saying no to new projects or opportunities when you don’t have time, saying no to fun stuff if you need to get other things done, saying no to people asking you to do things even if you could or you feel obligated. You don’t have to do everything and you can’t do everything. You will be far more capable of “adulting” if you say no some of the optional things in life and dedicate some of that time to managing finance, logistics, and health.

It’s easy enough to say “oh do all the adult things that you’re supposed to do because it will make you feel better” but it’s significantly harder to actually go ahead and figure out how to do those things. Maintaining a house, keeping up on insurance and healthcare and pet visits and car maintenance and when did I get a new IUD last? It’s a lot. We’ll be getting in to some methods for planning and organization later in this series (in fact I’ve got a whole section planned for that), but for now I’m going to give some brief hints that have helped me manage some of these things.

The biggest thing I do is use external scheduling reminders and consistent routines to keep up adult tasks. There are two general types of things that I have to manage: things that are periodic, like getting the oil changed in my car or going to the dentist, or regular things like cleaning the litter boxes or depositing my paycheck. I automate as many of these things as humanly possible (all bills and financial things) which cuts down on quite a bit.

For periodic things, I try to add reminders in multiple places. My phone and my planner are the most common. I also like to set up the next appointment as soon as I do this one, so that I don’t have to remember to make an appointment, just show up (and many if not most places will send you reminders). Consistency is key here. I like to go to the same place every time for something, as that makes it that much easier. We’ll talk more about memory and planners later, but whatever system you end up using, make sure you have the ability to make notes for the future.

The other thing I like to set up is routines! These are great for those regular tasks that always need to get done. Whenever possible I like to include another person in my routine to keep me accountable (this is why my workouts are in a class format), and do a little bit of data collection to find out when I’m most motivated for a given task. I also try not to set expectations too high for myself. Most people consider it disgusting if you don’t clean the litter boxes every day. I do it every three days. But my cats don’t care and I can’t smell it so it’s fine. I keep it realistic because when I make the goal to do it every day I get discouraged and end up doing it less often.

On the other hand, sometimes it feels real frickin’ good to do things that aren’t responsible. I like to schedule at least one day a week during which I do nothing of use. I relax. I drink tea. I eat chocolate. I do the things that let my mind melt. It’s important to have time for just plain old fun and relaxation.

A few notes here: after many years of trying to find the balance of relaxation and work, I’ve come to find that for me it’s a little more complex than that. The indulgent side of self care actually has two components: fun and exciting things that most often happen with friends, and relaxing and quiet things that let my mind and body rest. I need both of these. Spend some time noticing the different needs that you have and figuring out what helps for each one. You may have some self care that looks very traditional (I’m way into baths) and some that doesn’t (self care for me also includes insisting that my weekly Dungeons and Dragons sessions don’t get cancelled too often). You may have to research what self care works for you! There are tons and tons of Googleable lists out there of self care suggestions, so take a look and see what resonates.

A few suggestions: learning a bit about mindfulness is great for some of the relaxation type self care. You may not love it (and that’s ok), but it’s good to have the ability to be somewhat still and learn how to untense your body at least a touch. For those who like meditation or yoga those are great options!

If you are on the autism spectrum or have other sensory processing issues, this is where you want to pay very close attention to your sensory needs. If you’re trying to relax but there’s a fluorescent light that gives you a headache, it’s not going to work. Notice what you’re hyper sensitive to so that you can drown it out when you want your mind to chill out. On the other hand, notice what sensory activities you seek out. My self care goes all off kilter if I don’t get to climb something or swing on something or go whoosh at least a little bit each week. You may be able to incorporate a little bit of self care each day by having a particularly satisfying fidget on your desk.

Speaking of fidgeting, stimming is also something to pay attention to when building your self care routine. If you need to mask your stims while at work or out in public, make sure you’ve got some places to safely and comfortably stim in a way that feels good to you. A space for not pretending is the best self care I know.

Go out and be good to yourselves my friends.