Better Living Through Prosthetic Brain Parts

by Zoe Gross

The following excerpt is from “Navigating College: A Handbook on Self-Advocacy Written for Autistic Students from Autistic Adults.” This handbook, produced by the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network and the Autism NOW Center, offers tips and suggestions about various issues that people with autism and other developmental disabilities may encounter in college.

Hi! I’m Zoe, I’m an autistic college student, and I’m learning to manage my life. In high school, my parents helped me stay organized. If I forgot to eat dinner, they would remind me, and if I was behind schedule they would hurry me up. At college, I am the one arranging my schedule, forcing myself to do schoolwork, and reminding myself to eat dinner. If I forget about an appointment, no one will remember it for me. If I go back to sleep after my alarm clock goes off, no one can save me from missing class.

For a lot of college students, this freedom is a purely good thing, but for me it comes with a cost. Because of the way my disability affects me, I don’t already have the structures in my brain that my classmates are using to keep themselves organized. I’m still working on my strategies for dealing with this. So far, I’ve discovered some tools that I use to keep me on track. I call these tools “prosthetic brain parts” because they prop up the parts of my brain that don’t always work as well as I would like. While the specific things I use might not work for you, hopefully this list will give you some good ideas.

Brain function boosted: Relationship to Time

If you’re like me and have trouble conceptualizing time, a visual timer might help you. On a timer, the red area slowly decreases as time passes, showing you how much time has elapsed and how much you have left. They come in a lot of sizes, so they’re fairly portable. You can set some types of visual timers to beep when the time is up.

There are lots of ways to use a timer to help you live independently. I set mine to show the amount of time left before I leave for class in the morning, and that helps me pace myself while I’m getting dressed and packing my books. These are also good for transitioning between activities. For example, if I’m watching YouTube videos but will have to switch to homework soon, I might set the timer for ten more minutes, and glance at it occasionally to see how much time I have left before I change activities. This makes the transition much less abrupt.

You can also use timers for doing homework. Set it for an hour, and then work until it winds down. Set it for half an hour, and then take a break until it winds down. Repeat. If you’re going to try this, I’d encourage you to vary the length of your study periods and break periods until you find what works best for you. Some people can work uninterrupted for two hours and then need longer breaks. Other people can only focus for half an hour at a time and might take shorter breaks.

Brain function boosted: Long- and Short-Term Planning

At college, you will have a lot of dates and deadlines to manage – not just schoolwork due dates, but paperwork such as housing and financial aid forms as well. It helps to have a calendar so that you can record and remember these due dates, and take a long-term overview of the tasks you have to complete each semester.

Just as you can schedule a semester with a calendar, you can schedule a day with a planner, which breaks every day into hour or half-hour slots. Filling in a planner allows you to see visually how much time you are devoting to each activity. If you find color-coding helpful, you can use one color for scheduling studying, another color for appointments, and so on.

For some people, a three-dimensional paper calendar or planner works best, but other people find it helps to keep a virtual calendar on their computer. If you spend a large portion of your day on the computer, I recommend keeping your calendar there. You can use a program with a calendar component, such as Outlook, or set up a Google Calendar for free.

If you have a smartphone, you can keep your calendar and planner there. This makes it easier to check and update your calendar wherever you are.

Brain function boosted: Task Analysis

One of the first problems I encountered at college was getting out of my room in the mornings. There are so many small steps between waking up and walking out the door (getting up, showering, dressing, packing…). I don’t think very fast first thing in the morning, so keeping these steps straight became a real challenge.

I actually have this problem with a lot of things that are broken down into small steps, including academic tasks like writing essays. Something I recently learned, and found very helpful, was that these complex, multi-step tasks can be written up as flow charts or numbered lists. For me, making a flow chart that explains the process of leaving my room in the morning makes that process concrete, and I can refer to the chart if I forget what I’m doing while getting dressed. I make my flow charts by hand, but if this doesn’t appeal to you, there are websites online where you can make flow charts from templates.

Editor’s Note: Ms. Zoe Gross provides excellent recommendations for everyone. Read her article in its entirety by downloading a free copy of “Navigating College: A Handbook on Self-Advocacy Written for Autistic Students from Autistic Adults.” If you would like to share your ideas about how to keep organized or have specific questions that we can answer through the Autism NOW Center video Answer Series, please contact Amy Goodman at 202-600-3489 or [email protected].

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