People like to say that our autistic brains don’t come with an owner’s manual. I’m going to share what I have learned about my weird and wonderful brain, and we’ll have a good working outline for our autistic brains when we’re done.

Autistic Brain

*These lessons will also help people with SPD, ADD/ADHD, many sorts of learning disabilities, and other neurodivergences that center in the prefrontal cortex.*

Attention is the golden ticket to language, self-regulation, and functioning. Joint attention can be hard to develop at first until we learn the skills to engage it and the bravery to follow it to broaden our worlds. But there’s great news for our unusual brains.

We don’t have a lack of attention. We have an [over]abundance of it! What looks like an attention deficit to a neurotypical observer is a hyper-focused and hyper-aroused ability to pay attention. The trick is that we have to train our extra ability to pay attention. Otherwise we’ll fall prey to constant distractions, anxiety, and depression as we expend enormous energy paying attention to the wrong things.

To train our attention, it helps to weed out the things we don’t need to think about. That brings me to the second part of the Autistic Brain Owner’s Manual: Reduce Cognitive Load.

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This is a candid look at my current week’s planner plus an example from one of my children’s visual schedules. I don’t write out my entire schedule unless the items are variable week to week or unusual events. Writing down completed and upcoming tasks helps me clear my head before I start writing or working on another project.

Cognitive Load is the stuff we have bidding for our attention at the same time. You can lower the number of things you have to pay attention to at the same time by making schedules, lists, and using a calendar. Here’s how to put these 3 tools into practice.

  1. Visual Schedules. For kids or any of us who feel like we could use one, we make a set of pictures or drawings or labels in the order they occur that we post in a place we’re sure to see it easily. That shows us in one page what our daily pattern looks like, so we don’t have to keep paying attention to it. We don’t have to remember every part of the daily sequence of events. All we have to remember is to go look at the schedule. Because the schedule is just pictures, it keeps us from paying attention to every little thing coming up.
  2. Lists. These don’t have to be fancy, but I recommend that they be in a bound notebook to prevent losing them easily. If you have several things to do for your job, personal work, school, homelife, or to meet relationship goals, write them out on a list. I find it easiest to make the lists down a page with one item per line or in two columns, with new items marked with – dash – marks. People who already have high executive skills will usually overcomplicate the idea of a list. That draws our over-abundance of attention in multiple directions, which defeats the purpose of a list. I don’t recommend the endless subcategories that you can find in various systems for sale for this reason. A simple list of things to do, whether or not it’s in order of importance, lets you pay attention to one thing on the list at a time. You put a big check mark by the items as you get to them, which eases your anxiety. You know that you finished something, and you will over time spend less of your attention on worrying whether you *can* finish things.
  3. Calendars. Again, there are so many extremely complicated systems for sale, but we don’t need fancy features pulling our attention away from what we want to do. I recommend hanging a wall calendar that you can write on in a central location, where you also keep a permanent marker. This lets you jot down appointments on the dates you’ll need them, and it helps other members of your household to keep up with you without you having to remember to tell them. It can just be a house rule to check the wall calendar. The second calendar you need is a planner. It can be a simple set of pages printed from the web or a planner from the store. The important thing is that it have a monthly and weekly pages. You have a lot of attention, so you will need the weekly calendar pages to help you focus. I love these pages from the Elevate Printables Etsy shop (no affiliation, just appreciation!), but you can find similar pages elsewhere online or in stores. I often make lists on the back of the previous weeks planning pages in my calendar binder, which helps me keep things together. Planners are extremely helpful for offloading daily things AND helping you recall long-term goals. When I’m writing a book, I like to jot down phrases and sources in my planner since it’s usually out and open on my desk.

Remember: Your focus isn’t broken. Your attention isn’t lost. It just needs to be concentrated in order to show itself for the superpower that it is. By using visual schedules, lists, and calendars, you can start to reduce your cognitive load and draw your focus back towards the things that matter to you.

Please share your favorite ways to reduce cognitive load in the comments!

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Part One and Part Three of the series.