It is common for children with autism to have difficulty keeping their rooms tidy, or always misplacing their belongings. They may find it challenging to process information, organize their thoughts, and plan their daily activities (National Autistic Society, 2020). This may have a negative impact on their daily lives (SPD, 2021). For instance, frequent failing to submit homework on time can adversely affect their school performance. Frequent misplacing of own or others’ belongings can also strain their relationships with their family members or friends due to the constant replacing of materials. Hence, it is important to explicitly teach organizational skills to children with autism to improve their cognitive ability to plan and organize materials (e.g., keeping own belongings after use), time (e.g., planning daily timetable) and tasks (e.g., taking note of deadlines).
Here are some strategies we can use to improve their organizational skills (Learning for a purpose, 2019; Middletown Centre for Autism, n.d.; National Autistic Society, 2020; SPD, 2021):
1. Use visual and audio tools
Visual, and sometimes, audio tools are always good ways to help children with autism understand their daily activities. Calendars, visual schedules (in pictures or words), lists, daily planner can be useful in helping them keep track of daily tasks and important deadlines. For example, calendars can be used to keep track of important dates (e.g., birthday celebration, meeting with friends) and places they need to go (e.g., going to the dentist). Visual schedules can help them be more aware of their daily routines (e.g., showering and brushing their teeth before breakfast). These schedules can be organized according to the times of the day (i.e., morning, afternoon, evening) or days of the week. For instance, they always go for a walk at the park in the evening or they always meet their relatives every Sunday.
Having to-do lists and checklists can help them to keep track of upcoming tasks to ensure all tasks are completed. Lists also help to record their achievements and provide a sense of accomplishment whenever a task is completed. Visual reminders (in the form of sticky notes) and audio reminders (e.g., alarm reminders on watch or phone) can also be used.
Sequence cards can be particularly useful for helping children with autism understand the concept of time and sequences. By breaking down an activity into a sequence of simple and manageable steps, it is easier for them to execute these steps to complete the activity. These sequence cards can be incorporated into the visual schedules for easy tracking of daily activities. For instance, brushing of teeth can be broken into many simple sets such as taking the toothbrush, putting toothpaste onto the toothbrush, brushing the teeth, filling the cup with water, gurgling with the water, and spitting the water into the sink.
With these visual (and audio) tools, children with autism may be able to better plan and organize their time and tasks, ensuring that they complete all their required daily activities and meet important deadlines.
2. Set up the environment for success
Changing and de-cluttering the environment can make it easier for children with autism to find and organize their belongings. Having designated spaces for certain items can help them keep their things in a fixed place to prevent any misplacing of items. Drawers and cupboards can be labelled in the form of pictures or words. For example, each compartment in their bedroom cupboard can be labeled according to the different types of clothing in them, such as shirts, bottoms, undergarments and towels.
Colour coding of items can also be helpful in distinguishing between similar objects of different functions. For example, the red laundry basket is for dirty clothes while the green laundry basket is for clean clothes. Besides that, colour coding can also indicate the importance and urgency of different tasks. For instance, labelling tasks on a to-do list with different colours (e.g., red for urgent tasks such as finishing the homework, green for important but not-so urgent tasks such as cleaning the room) can teach them to prioritize the different tasks and complete them accordingly. This also helps them to organize their time as they learn to allocate more time to finish all the urgent tasks before moving on to the not-so urgent ones.
3. Use social stories
Social stories and comic strip conversations can be effective in helping children with autism understand the importance of being organized. Various situations that require organizational skills can be illustrated in the social stories, such as keeping the room tidy or remembering to complete homework on time. The importance of being organized and the consequences of losing items or missing deadlines can also be included in the social stories. One example could be that, a child who organizes his room and easily finds his swimsuit can enjoy swimming with his friends, as compared to a child who misplaces his swimsuit can only swim a few days later when he buys a new swimsuit.
4. Reward and praise them
It is necessary to ensure that these skills are taught in small increments so as to not overload them with too much information. Always praise and reward them with their favourite toy, snack or activity whenever they learn to plan and organize their belongings, time and tasks. For example, reward can be given when they successfully follow a visual schedule without much reminder from others or when they are able to keep their belongings back in the designated places after use.
Having good organizational skills is essential for our daily living as we plan our time and go about our daily routines and activities. When children with autism are being explicitly taught these skills, they are able to plan and organize their thoughts and belongings better, helping them to function better in school and at home.
Written by Xiao Hui.
Learning for a purpose. (September 7, 2019). How to help your teen with autism become organized. Retrieved from https://learningforapurpose.com/2019/09/07/how-to-help-teens-with-autism-with-organization-skills/
Middletown Centre for Autism. (n.d.). Organisation Skills. Retrieved from https://teenage-resource.middletownautism.com/teenage-issues-and-strategies/school-life/common-areas-of-difficulty/organisation-skills/
National Autistic Society. (August 14, 2020). Organising and prioritising - a guide for all audiences. National Autistic Society. Retrieved from https://www.autism.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/topics/behaviour/organising-and-prioritising/all-audiences
SPD. (May 12, 2021). How to improve your child’s organisational skills. Retrieved from https://www.spd.org.sg/how-to-improve-your-childs-organisational-skills/