The ability to organise, sequence and prioritise helps us to plan daily activities and manage our time effectively. However, some people on the autism spectrum may find organising, sequencing and prioritising difficult. Here, we explain why this can be the case, and list some ways to help.
An autistic person may have difficulties with:
- processing information
- predicting the consequences of an action (if I do this, what will happen next?)
- understanding the concept of time
- 'executive function' (ie a person may be detail-focused and less able to see the whole picture).
One or all of these can affect a person's ability to organise, prioritise and sequence. For example, if you struggle to understand the concept of time, how do you plan what you will do over the course of a week?
Here are some ways in which people on the autism spectrum can organise and prioritise daily activities and tasks. At first, other people may need to have a lot of involvement introducing the strategies. You may use the strategies in more than one place, for example at home and at school, so it is important that everyone who is using them - be it family members, employers, teachers or friends - uses them consistently.
Over time, some autistic people will be able to use the strategies independently. Others may always need support.
Pictures, written lists, calendars and real objects can all be good ways of helping people on the autism spectrum to understand what is going to happen and when. For example, a person might have a daily timetable with pictures of a shower, clothes, breakfast, their school, dinner, a toothbrush, pyjamas, and a bed to indicate what they will be doing, and in what order, that day. Find out more about visual supports.
Colours can be used to indicate the importance or significance of tasks (and therefore help to prioritise tasks and work through them in a logical sequence).
For example, work in a red tray or file could be urgent, work in a green tray or file could be pending, while work in a blue tray or file is not important or has no timescale attached to it.
Colours can also help people to distinguish between paperwork, for example different household bills.
Recorded messages, on a dictaphone or smartphone, can be a useful auditory reminder of tasks, work, events or deadlines.
Lists can remind us of the tasks we need to do, and to help us prioritise. Lists can also be a good way of registering achievements (by crossing something off when you've done it), and of reassuring yourself that you're getting things done. Lists can be visual, written, or in the form of a task list app.
Alarms and alerts
Mobile phones, computers, radios and televisions can be used to act as a reminder.
Computer calendars can have important dates stored on them, or reminders about when to pay bills. Radios and televisions can be set to come on or switch off at a particular time as a reminder to do something, eg to go out to a social event. Instructions can be sent by text - text messages lend themselves to this especially well as you are forced to keep instructions brief and simple. A text message is also an unobtrusive and discreet way of contacting or supporting an autistic person.
Task boxes, envelopes and files
Store work or belongings in set places, so that they aren't misplaced or forgotten.
Times of day, days of the week
You can use times of day (morning, afternoon or evening) or days of the week to help plan and organise tasks, social activities and other events. For example, Saturday is shopping day, Wednesday is bills day, Thursday night is homework night.
Social stories™ and comic strip conversations
Social stories™ and comic strip conversations can be a good way of illustrating the consequences of an action. They can help people to understand why it's good to be organised, and what might happen if we don't meet deadlines or attend an activity at a particular time. Find out more about Social stories™ and comic strip conversations.
Teaching materials: time and sequence
You may find that teaching materials such as sequence cards, games, timers and clocks help some people on the autism spectrum to understand the concept of time and sequences. Materials like this can be adapted and used in different places, for example at home and at work.
We all need to learn how to manage our money, to budget, control spending and pay bills. Many autistic adults will manage their own money or bills, to varying extents, while children may have pocket money. It can help to set out very specific guidelines about managing money and the consequences of spending. Try our free managing money online module.
Shopping for both clothes and food can be difficult for some people on the autism spectrum because of the crowds and noise. Shopping online could be an answer. Alternatively, try to encourage the habit of visiting the shops with a clear list of items needed, and going at a time when the shops are quieter or less busy to reduce anxiety or stress.
Homework, assignments and deadlines can cause great anxiety for some people. Others will not register their significance. It is therefore important that students on the autism spectrum are helped by the right approach to support their study. The following strategies will help:
- clear monitoring
- regular meetings with teaching staff
- colour coding of files.
Some people may need help in understanding the end goal of what to them may seem continuous work and deadlines.
Processing of instructions can be difficult, so it may be useful to use communication books, online learning environments, and voice recordings to reduce the pressure on the student of trying to remember what they are supposed to be doing.
Strategies to employ in the work environment include:
- using files and colour to identify and clarify the importance and deadlines for particular pieces of work.
- making a clear to do list at the beginning of the day - you can then cover up or mark off work which has been completed
- arranging regular meetings with your line manager to ensure work is understood and work is progressing
- using the computer programs available to help organise work - for example colour coding emails relating to importance of response
- using the calendar as a reminder for meetings or deadlines.
Find out more about the workplace and what employers can do to help.
Find suppliers of resources for organising, sequencing and prioritising, or find out more about behaviour.
Last reviewed 25 April 2017