Nurturing Organization and Independence through Visual Reminders

Editor’s Note: The following article was written by Kathy Dolbee, Parent Advocate for the Autism Society of North Carolina.

The concept of time is abstract. After all, a timeline has an arrow at each end and the concept of infinity is hard for us mortals to wrap our brain around. That is why we wear a watch, hang a clock on the wall, and write appointments on the calendar. By using everyday visual tools we are able to take something abstract and make it concrete. Can you help your child with autism understand the value of using such tools? You can lay the foundation for teaching more complex organizational skills by making a few small adjustments in your normal routine.

How are your child’s calendar and clock skills? Often kids begin by learning to sing the days of the week in preschool or kindergarten, but that does not mean that your child truly understands that a calendar not only marks off the days as they pass, but it is also an important planning tool.

Start a new school or calendar year with the purchase of an eye-catching calendar and post it in a central location in your home. Take time together to write meaningful dates of future events, including birthdays, book fairs, bake sales, whatever. Continue to refer to the calendar, counting the days to the special event. Doing so will give your child a sense that many things in life are predictable. Gradually your child will learn that the calendar can be trusted.

If something needs to change, don’t freak out. Explain that sometimes events get cancelled or rescheduled, and mark the appropriate changes on the calendar. Your child will grasp the concept that life is not a random series of events that occur without plan or purpose.

Students with ASD need to learn how to manage their time if they are going to be successful in school and in life. The reality is, most people with autism crave structure, but few are able to create it without direct instruction. With or without autism, successful people are those who use effective tools to manage their time and visual reminders to stay on task.

Another visual reminder to try is posting a shopping list on the refrigerator. When you’ve finished off that gallon of milk, ask you child to write “milk” on the list. Do that for every item that needs to be purchased. If you child asks, “Do we have any ice cream?” Reply, “Did you write it on the list?” You could even make a list of items that need to be on hand (like bathroom tissue and toothpaste) and ask your child to do an inventory check prior to going shopping.

Remember that the objective is to teach the use of visual organizational tools, so make sure that your child sees you using and relying on the list at home and at the store. Involve him in the process by assigning him the task of checking off items as they are placed in the cart. Simple as it may seem, a shopping list is a practical example of what the folks at TEACCH would call a “work system” – and guess what? IT WORKS!

The best gifts you can give your child are independent life skills that will support his independence and success.

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