The Ultimate Executive Function Challenge: Moving Out of My Dorm

Even after I was diagnosed with autism, there was a long period of time where I didn’t think I had any executive function issues. Most of the time, I’m organized. I’m on top of things. I get to places early. I finish what I start. I begin my homework before it’s even assigned. Surely all of this was evidence that my executive functioning was fully intact. I assumed that my difficulties lay elsewhere. This was an area where many struggled, but fortunately, I did not.

Cleaning Routines

I always did my laundry on Fridays, because I didn’t have class that day and in the evenings, I went to Hillel. Traditionally, you’re supposed to have everything clean and organized and prepare for Shabbat, so it made sense for me to do my weekly chores that day. The first few months, I was spending a truly ridiculous amount of time (like, upwards of three hours) on cleaning, and it got to be so excessive that I set a limit on it. Laundry was a little tricky because it involved dragging all of my stuff across a courtyard and down three flights of stairs, which was no easy feat, especially when I needed to wash my two weighted blankets as well. Just getting my laundry to the laundry room without forgetting the detergent or losing my keys was enough of a production.

Morning Routines

The main challenges here are working memory, task completion, and time management. I remember that I should go wash my face, but in the split second it takes to get to the backroom, I’ve already forgotten about that and am now busy with something else. As for time management, the issue is a bit counterintuitive. If I have to leave my dorm at, say, 8 am, I know I need to be ready by then, and there’s an immediate deadline driving me to complete the task (and to do so in a reasonable timeframe). But if I don’t have that mini deadline, there’s no time pressure, so it might take me far, far longer to finish my morning routine, if I finish at all.

Four Contributors’ Perspectives on College Orientations

I think during orientations, there’s this pressure to participate in everything and seize opportunities and connect with other people, but really, some of the orientation things were a lot more essential than others. For example, there were some assemblies where they gave us information about academics, the drug/alcohol policies, preventing sexual harassment and assault…those were essential. But taking a selfie with the president at his house? Not so much. (Nothing against the president, of course; I’m sure he’s a great guy.) There were also some surprises worked into orientation, which I guess is because a lot of people like surprises, but I hate them, so the advance warning was particularly crucial here. They do this one thing called band run that basically involves every dorm running, screaming, carrying a flag, and chasing the band for a two-mile run around campus at 10 pm and then jumping in fountains. This sounded like the worst thing ever to me. Anyway, because I knew about this in advance, I just retreated to my room and lay under my weighted blanket and listened to indie rock. Much better.

How to Keep Track of Keys

When I started college, I was losing things right and left. It was frustrating, time-consuming, and most of all, discouraging. I spent a lot of time beating myself up over this, but eventually, I developed strategies to take things off my mind–literally. I realized that a seemingly simple task–e.g., remembering my keys–is actually kind of complicated…

Using Your System, Level 3

Level 1 and 2 techniques are based on the idea that all time is created equal, but that’s not really the case. We all have our most and least productive times of the day and week. My ability to think always deteriorates as the day goes on, especially as my meds wear off. (I should probably consider extended release…) Hence my 5 pm rule: “don’t expect to do anything meaningful after 5 pm.” Of course, there are exceptions, like Shabbat services and reading Tana French books, but this is still a good example of knowing and accepting my limits, instead of trying to fight them.

Using Your System, Level 2

At the end of Level 1, you’ll notice that I didn’t know how much time I’ll need for the English paper. This level involves chunking that item, breaking it down into smaller, more manageable steps. This allows me to solve a number of different EF challenges…

Using Your System, Level 1

Marshmallows don’t taste good unless you eat them. Aspirin doesn’t fix your headache unless you take it. And your planner won’t make a difference unless you look at it.

This is where the rule → routine → habit concept comes in. At first, the rule is that you look at your planner (on your phone, on a computer, on paper) around breakfast, lunch, and dinner. (This carries the added bonus of pairing the new rule with something that you already do, which is an excellent way to reinforce a habit.) After you do this for a while, it’s a routine, and after a while longer, it becomes a habit.

Configuring Your System (Executive Function Strategies #3)

What should you put in your planner? The short answer: everything. The longer answer: everything, which I divide into three main categories: events, reminders, and tasks.

Events are…well…pretty much what they sound like. For example, today I’m attending a luncheon focused on the barriers that left-handed women face within the freelance cashier industry, after which I’m heading out to the Amateur Acrobatics Convention (conveniently located right next to the hospital). So, yeah. Events.

6 Quick Tips for Drinking Safely

Tip #1: Hydrate when you drink. I cannot overemphasize this one enough. Mixing more types of liquor, drinking on an empty stomach, and drinking when tired make you exponentially more affected by alcohol and make the influence way less predictable. And especially when drinking wine, which is sugary, you will get dehydrated and feel hungover or just gross the next day. Conclusion: drink water, especially when you have wine or sugary mixed drinks!

Choosing a System (Executive Function Strategy #2)

The best system is the one that works. It might take some trial and error to figure out what works for you. For a while, I tried to do everything on paper (planner, sticky notes, calendar on my desk, the works), but then I had too many things to keep track of – again, rule/routine/habit. The stress of trying to fit them all into the planner outweighed the destressing effects of having a planner.

Navigating College Dining Halls

I was originally going to call this post “dining hall hacks,” but then I realized that that maybe sounded a little terrorist-y. I was once accused of rigging an alarm system, and before I defended myself, I was quite flattered, because I really appreciated the fact that people assumed I would be capable of such a thing. In reality, I’m not. But I digress.

How Not To Lose Stuff (Executive Function Strategy #1)

When I started college, I was losing things right and left. It was frustrating, time-consuming, and most of all, discouraging. I spent a lot of time beating myself up over this, but eventually, I developed strategies to take things off my mind–literally. I realized that a seemingly simple task–e.g., remembering my keys–is actually kind of complicated…

11 Ways to Hack Executive Functioning

Hack #5: Visual Cues. Standing in the middle of my dorm room, I can see where any given item goes just by looking at the labels on my drawers, shelves, and closet-y thing (wardrobe). I even have them labeled in Russian.

The great thing is that this gets easier over time. Autistics thrive on routine. After about two or three weeks of always putting my wallet in a specific container, I stopped thinking about it. I freed up more cognitive space for more interesting and important things. I felt a lot more relaxed. And I’ve never forgotten the Russian word for “blanket” since. (It’s одеяло.) Win/win/win situation.

Components of Executive Function

We often talk about executive functioning as though it’s this one discrete skill or entity, but EF actually consists of 10 core components. Breaking EF down and looking at each of these units individually can make it easier to understand how poor EF affects people’s lives and what strategies can be helpful. This post describes all the components of EF…or at least, the ones you should care about.

Everything You Need to Know About Office Hours

Let’s play three truths and a lie: which of the following questions have I NOT discussed with a professor during office hours?

What’s the best metaphor to describe psychomotor retardation in depression?

Is it more effective to explain autism acceptance with this Drake meme or that SpongeBob meme?

How should I cite this TikTok video as a source for my final paper?

Is this SNL clip a good representation of YA fiction?

9 Tips for Class Discussions

In most conversations, my brain is in two places at once: I’m tracking what other people are talking about (partly) and chasing my own rapid-fire, about-as-high-speed-as-your-average-bullet-but-less-linear thoughts (mostly). So because I’m more focused on my own line of thinking, whatever I’m saying is on topic – but it’s on my topic. And other people are not on my topic.

6 Keys to Classroom Etiquette

Key #1: It’s good to arrive at class early so you can sit outside the room and reblog stuff on Tumblr. Or, I don’t know, people-watch. If you’re late…well, you know what being late means.

How to Email a Professor (+19 Social Scripts)

Every time I’ve emailed a professor – or pretty much any other adult, for that matter – I’ve thought to myself, “Ugh, this is hard. There are so many social rules, and I usually don’t know they exist until I break them. I wish there were a script for this.” On about the 378th iteration of this thought, I realized that I could make a script, along with a series of very straightforward directions to demystify the process of emailing professors and other professor-like humans. That’s what this post is.

How to Ask a Question in Class

I have a special gift for monopolizing conversations without even realizing it. It’s a combination of social unawareness, taking classes that are almost always related to my special interests, and any social awareness I usually have going out the window the minute I start talking about said special interests. Oh, and there’s also an element of my being able to relate any discussion to my special interests even when most people would not make the connection. My poor fellow classmates.

10 Strategies to Stay Focused While Studying

Every time I look at articles of college life hacks, there’s always that picture of the textbook with the gummy bears spaced after each paragraph. And I always think, “This seems like a remarkably bad idea.” The ideas in this post are better. Unless you like gummy bears, I suppose.

5 Ways to Memorize Autistically

What’s your special interest? I have a feeling that you could throw a slew of facts at me that most neurotypicals wouldn’t think of learning by heart. You can harness this autistic power to memorize stuff.

10 Ways to End a Conversation Fast (or Avoid It Completely)

I don’t feel like I need to give much in the way of an intro here, because all of us, autistic or not, end up having conversations we don’t want to have. And I don’t mean a refusal to confront uncomfortable ideas. More like a refusal to get roped into a 12-minute play-by-play account of so-and-so’s terrible week that you never asked to hear in the first place.

35 Questions and 3 Social Scripts to Keep a Conversation Going

Okay, you’ve established what your name is, what the other person’s name is, and that the weather either is or isn’t nice. Great. Where do you go from there?

My default answer is usually “get out ASAP” because I’m absurdly introverted and people are tiring.
However, this is not always polite or reasonable, and if I actually did get out ASAP every time I wanted to, I wouldn’t have met most of my friends.

17 Clues That Someone Is Trying to End a Conversation

It took me so long (think years) to put all the pieces together and understand that instead of saying, “I will leave now,” neurotypicals go through this whole sequence of tiny gestures and nonverbal cues to wind a conversation down. This is one of my least favorite social conventions. Would it kill them to communicate directly? Some neurotypicals actually seem to think it would, or at least that it would be impolite. I guess we can add this to the list of things that make no sense to me, but that I must deal with anyway.

The Big Reasons for Small Talk

79% of the time, I hate small talk because it feels exhausting and pointless. But I’ve learned not to believe everything I think. Feeling pointless and being pointless are two different things. As it turns out, small talk is not a spandrel. It does have a purpose. Multiple purposes, even…

9 Ways to Show You’re Listening (Without Making Eye Contact)

I used to think that if I didn’t make eye contact, it was the end of the world, socially speaking. Why did I think that? Because everyone told me so. “Look me in the eyes. Eyes, Lucy. Eyes. You’re not looking at me. Come on. I need you to listen. Eyes, eyes, eyes, eyes…”

Fortunately, that myth has since been busted.

Social Scripts for Disclosure

If people ask you questions you don’t want to answer, one solution is to say “I have a neurological condition” or “I have a medical condition,” and the conversation usually ends there. There’s a neurotypical rule that if someone has a medical condition you’re supposed to stop asking questions. So if a neurotypical does keep asking you questions, you can shake your finger at them and say, “Bad neurotypical! Bad!

I’m kidding. Don’t do that.

Why Disclose?

I’m a logical thinker (except when it comes to anxiety disorders, where I’m phenomenally irrational). I tend to approach relationships strategically, through a lens of transitions. If I’m going to give someone information about myself, there has to be a reason for that – and once I figure out that reason, it might cause me to change my mind about what information I want to give.

Disadvantages of Disclosure

Now that we’ve covered the pros of disclosure, let’s look at the cons. You might have to deal with “You don’t look autistic” and similar nonsense. “I never would have known!” “You’re so high-functioning!” These aren’t necessarily indicators of deliberate… Read More ›

Advantages of Disclosure

Disclosure: that wondrous moment when you tell someone that you’re autistic and they say, “But you don’t look autistic.” Or, “Oh, like in Rainman?” Or, “Isn’t Greta Thunberg autistic?”

Accommodations in Action

Understand college accommodations with a long list, advice from a wise student, and the tales of Grace Gonzalez, a disabled student who is studying Crocodile Studies with Professor Crocodial. True story, I promise.

29 Disability Accommodations Explained

I scoured dozens of colleges’ websites to compile this list, so I dare say it’s pretty comprehensive. Your school might not offer every single one of these options, but it never hurts to ask. Keep in mind that while colleges in the US are required to provide accommodations, those requirements are different from the ones that apply to elementary, middle, and high schools. If you had an IEP or 504 plan previously, your accommodations as an undergraduate may undergo some significant changes.

Introducing…Autism College Hacks!

Autistics might be bad at social skills, but that doesn’t mean we can’t get better. In collaboration with an amazing team of college-age-ish people, I compiled documents full of advice and information on everything from the disability accommodations process to dining hall norms. This resource is called “Autism College Hacks” because a) college can be hacked to our advantage and b) you can’t grow up in Silicon Valley without taking on some of the vernacular.

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