Lists are a good way to break complicated actions down into smaller, easy-to-manage steps (ex: how-to guides). They’re also a way to stay on track and avoid distractions (where was I? Oh, yes, now I’m on this step). Lists also help us jot down ideas/items as they occur to us, to make sure everything gets covered (ex: grocery list). In fact, lists are good for just about everything.
People with Asperger’s Syndrome are famous for using lists, for all of these reasons (see previous post The Mighty List).
For the past few months, we’ve been working on list management with our son, to help him break down complex actions into simple steps (as in making a sandwich) while simultaneously building planning and organizational skills (how do I build that sandwich, anyway?). Think DIY guides and manuals. First, this goes here, then you twist the widget there, and so on.
Here, in a nutshell, is what we did to teach how-to list making:
- Practice at least once every day.
- Before performing the action, walk through it verbally, or write it down (from step 1 to finish). Then actually do whatever it is, from cleaning a room to making a sandwich to getting dressed in the morning.
- Give gentle hints (and lots of encouragement) if needed; the goal is not frustration, but to teach planning and execution.
- Mix things up a bit and have him/her write a list for you to follow. This always made our son happy; he likes to be in control. It’s important that he/she write this as if you are a robot and know nothing of the task being performed. We had a few laughs about endlessly smearing mustard with fingers, since no knife was provided for, but since this was a harder skill (writing for someone else, not smearing mustard!), I allowed him to revise as we went.
For us, it was a completely fascinating process. We don’t even think anymore about how to organize our thoughts, so to see someone else develop this skill little-by-little was both interesting and enlightening.
Each day our son made his list – written or verbal – in which he broke down a job into steps. For instance, the sandwich example from above.
At first, he’d grab his hair and say, “I don’t know how I do it; I just do it! Muscle memory!” We heard this a lot for the first two weeks.
After gently reminding him to start with the first step – what do you need first? And then looking pointedly at the dishes. Oh, I need a plate! – it all starting falling into place. “What do I need first?” became a sort of mantra for him.
This was good. It’s great to get past being overwhelmed by a project.
A few weeks after the sandwich incident – there were actually a few like that – I asked him to break down sandwich-making again (by the way, we really did make a sandwich; he just had to verbally walk through it first, and then make it).
Eyes rolled. Big sighs of exasperation. Of course he knew how to make a sandwich. First, you get out a plate, then you get… and so on. He had it down pat.
We saw a lot of growth in the way he began to tackle things in general. He no longer just dove into something and then got lost, distracted, or pulled his hair and said he didn’t know how to organize his thoughts.
He was able to think it through first, make sense of it all, and then execute his plan.
For us, the time frame on this how-to list development (from start to mastery) took over a month. However, everyone is different; for some, it will be shorter, and for others, longer.