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How I am learning to manage my brain

An experimental approach to figuring all this out

Since my recent autism diagnosis, I have been reviewing how I do pretty much everything. I have spent a lot of time finding out what works for me. Addressing needs to which I had previously been oblivious.

I am a data person by day, with a background in science. It is perhaps no surprise I am treating this as one giant experiment. Lucky for me, it has been working well. So I wanted to share my approach.

Below is what I have been doing, broken into four steps. My conclusions won’t be the same as yours. The method can work for all sorts of things.

The reality is not always as neat and tidy as this. But, broadly, this is what I have done…

Step 1: Gather data

I pick an element of my autism report (you could use the diagnostic criteria if you don’t have one). Then pay attention to how I feel in related situations. I write down what happens to help spot themes. Sometimes I do this in “real-time”, sometimes I can do it retrospectively, sometimes I ask for input from friends. Some are more obvious and I can just do them in my head without writing anything at all.

Example: routine stuff. I picked what I call “routine stuff”. I know that I need a lot of structure and predictability. I started to notice that I spend a lot of time rehearsing routines in my head. Then noticed I am more easily thrown into a spin at certain times: first thing in the morning, coming home, changing between weekday and weekend routines, and if I’m in a new place.

Step 2: Prioritise solutions

Now I understand the problem, I can come up with things that might help. These might be things I’ve read online, advice from friends, or totally made up. All are good. Thinking of some quite extreme answers here helps me get more creative. Then I decide which ones feel most appealing. I think of them as mini-experiments: regardless of the outcome, I will learn something new.

Example: routine stuff. Possible solutions: A partner suggested a whiteboard with my routine for the day; I’d read about having set routines for different times of day (e.g. getting up); I wanted to try more concrete tasks on a Monday and Saturday to help with transitions; I contemplated a fixed hour-by-hour schedule for every day as a more “extreme” option. The first two felt the most appealing and easy to try.

Step 3: Test something

I pick the most appealing thing or things and experiment. I notice how it feels. Sometimes I write that down and compare it to how I felt before I tried. I think about: what parts feel easy? What parts take too much effort? Is it making me worry about something else? Is it making life any easier? The answers don’t really matter, the only important thing is noticing.

Example: routine stuff. I tried having set routines for getting up, coming home, and going to bed. I wrote them on a whiteboard where I could always see them. I noticed that some pressure and anxiety were taken off when I stuck to the schedule, especially the coming home one. I guess that’s the hardest transition for me. But it felt difficult if I wanted to do things in a different order, or skip a step. All of a sudden I was going against “the plan” and that is very stressful. This most often happened around the bedtime routine.

Step 4: Evaluate and iterate

I reflect on what went well, and what I could change. Sometimes I decide this totally doesn’t work and move on to a different option. That’s fine — I’ve still learnt something. It means I can try something deliberately different next. I might decide to just tweak something, based on how I felt, and try again. The important thing is that I want to keep learning.

Example: routine stuff. I have made several changes to this, but I still do it. I reduced the number of steps and changed the orders slightly, to be more realistic. I ditched the going to bed routine since it was causing more stress than it saved. I added some flexibility to the morning routine, as this changes depending on whether I exercise or not.

Now I’ve got them pretty much set and it’s helped a lot. I recently stayed in a new place for a few weeks. One morning I woke up feeling confused and overwhelmed and stuck. Suddenly I thought back to my whiteboard at home, and it kicked me into autopilot. It was a big relief compared to the “waaaaaaa what do I do?!?!” which had played on repeat in my brain up until that point.

This approach is hardly a revolution, but it has helped me a lot. Sometimes I have too many experiments “live” and I chop and change a lot, or I get overwhelmed. And I certainly do not always follow this 100%. But when I can take a step back and be methodical, the answers always get clearer.

Lauren x


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