Clutter in a living space can be a huge stressor for people with autism because it can contribute to sensory overload and overall stress levels. An unorganized and messy space can also make simple tasks more difficult because a larger amount of time may need to be dedicated to finding needed items. Although organization can be difficult for many and time-consuming, it can also be a low-cost solution that significantly reduces stress. Putting aside time for some spring cleaning can help make a living space more autism-friendly and make daily routines easier.
With organization, the key is to start small. As discussed on Living with Asperger’s, many adults with autism find it challenging to clean and organize their living spaces. Zosia Zak, author of Life and Love: Positive Strategies for Autistic Adults is quoted by Living with Asperger’s, illustrating the difficulties many adults with autism face with regard to cleaning and organizing their living space.
“Some autistic people have difficulty managing all the tasks that go into maintaining a home. What has to be done first? Where do you begin?
“Autistic people may also have trouble sorting different objects in the home. For example, we may not realize that the enormous pile of ‘stuff’ on the bed can be broken down into separate piles of clothes, books, papers, and trash, and therefore managed more easily. It may be difficult to sort and control things that arrive in the home, with newspapers winding up all over the place and packages left by the door for weeks. It may not be obvious where to store items either.
“Well-meaning non-autistic friends or relatives can inadvertently put pressure on us or assume we are lazy, in fact, we may have be having serious trouble caring for our living quarters, further fueling a sense of frustration.” (p. 28-29)
Similarly, Madison House Autism Foundation Associate Kyle Gosweiler explains in You Aut to Know: What Helps Adults with Autism Thrive, how many adults with autism find it challenging to do certain tasks because they are “prone to high levels of distraction and losing [their] train of thought.” For people with autism, it is also easier to get caught up in the numerous steps and details that may be involved in a task, as Kyle explains, making it difficult to focus on the specific factors of the situation that need to be addressed. Tying this back into the above quote by Zosia Zak sheds light on how hard it can be to approach the task of cleaning and organizing a living space because the question “Where to start?” cannot be easily answered for many.
It can feel like an insurmountable task to clean a messy room because there are so many aspects of the environment that demand attention. Breaking up this project into several smaller steps can make it easier to manage. Rather than trying to clean the entire space at once, a small section of the room, like one dresser drawer, can be addressed first. If it is possible, enlisting a family member, caregiver, or friend to help out can be a great way to stay on task. Once this area has successfully been cleaned and organized, you can then move on to a larger section of the room and continue the process, with the end goal being able to eventually clean and organize every part of the room.
So, how can successfully organizing a space be useful? Simply put, effectively organizing a space makes life easier (so you don’t have to spend hours looking for your watch, for example), reduces stress and sensory overload, and consists of strategies that can be used on a regular basis. The process of organizing a space does not look the same for everyone, but there are several common strategies and approaches that are useful for many, especially autistic individuals and their families.
Minimalism can be a useful way of approaching organization for some, as it stresses reducing the amount of visual clutter in a home as well as promoting harmony and order. In How Minimalism Can Benefit Those With Sensory Issues and Special Needs on the blog Nourishing Minimalism, the benefits of reducing the number of items and decorations in the home for those with sensory issues, which includes many people with autism, is discussed. Removing decorations, such as pictures on the wall and knick knacks that have no utility, may be a quick way to reduce visual clutter in a space. Minimalism can also be incorporated into the larger home design, as briefly explained in Designing Living Spaces for Autism on a Budget, also on the MHAF Blog. Using soft, muted colors in design is a common facet of minimalism and is often helpful for those with sensory sensitivities. However, it is important to remember that minimalism does not just consist of getting rid of as many things as you possibly can. The home should still feel like a home, while not overwhelming the senses with clutter and decorations.
The principles of minimalism can also be applied to functional items that are used often. For example, if a desk is covered in pens, sticky notes, notebooks, and various other items, removing items that serve the same purpose can reduce visual clutter while still preserving the functionality of the space. Here, it is vital for the person who uses the space to have control over what stays and what goes. For example, if pens are something that brings them joy, then they should decide the amount of pens they want to keep and how they would like to store, organize, or display them. The central goal in applying minimalism to organize spaces so that they are autism-friendly is to create a space that is less visually overwhelming, while preserving functionality as well as feelings of safety, individuality, and happiness.
REDUCE AND REUSE
Increasing storage space is another way in which clutter can be quickly reduced, while still keeping functional items easily accessible. Although it can be costly in terms of time and money to build another closet or install additional shelves, there are many cheap storage solutions that can be implemented quickly. Lifebuzz lists several creative and low-cost ways to increase storage which can quickly be put into practice in your home. Shoe holders, old shoe boxes, empty baby wipe boxes, and magazine holders can be used all over the home to store a wide variety of items while keeping them out of sight. Velcro is also useful for making often-used items quickly accessible, while still making sure that they do not end up in a jumble of items on the floor or lost in a drawer. For example, video game controllers and remotes can be backed with Velcro and then hung on the side of a TV cabinet. There are several ways to effectively organize a space in ways that reduce visual clutter while still keeping needed items accessible and reusing old items that may be lying around – a three for one approach!
Physically labeling spaces by function, highlighted in the 2009 booklet Advancing Full Spectrum Housing by Sherry Ahrentzan and Kimberly Steele, is also an important aspect of organization, especially for people with autism. Depending on the needs of the person with autism, labels that incorporate images and/or text can be used to signal the contents of a drawer or storage space or the function of a particular room. For text-only labels, a label maker can be purchased for about $30, although there are numerous options. Alternatively, a marker, white paper, and tape can be used to create labels. Labels can also incorporate printed photos of the space, if they are needed.
Color coding can also be incorporated into organizational strategies. Ahrentzan and Steele highlight the utility of color coding areas by function, emphasizing how changes in color illustrate a difference in purpose between areas (2009). This idea could be extended to designating a difference in function in organized and stored items. For example, items that are taken out every day to be used could be stored in a green box, while items that are only taken out once in a while could be stored in a blue box. Here, it becomes especially important to organize and sort items in a way that fits the needs of the person that uses the space.
PUTTING IT INTO ACTION
Organizing spaces so that they are more autism-friendly can also be an ongoing process that requires some amount of time and effort every day. A period of time every week should be carved out to dedicate to cleaning up a living space. For some, a printable room by room cleaning checklist may be helpful and can be adapted to their specific needs and goals. Furthermore, as discussed in the article Organization Skills for Autistic Adults on the blog Adult Asperger’s Chat, it is important to designate a space for every item to prevent losing items. For example, an iPad should always go on the desk in the bedroom when it it is not being used. In addition, after using an item, it should be put away in its location as soon as possible, otherwise it risks being misplaced. Although it may take some time to build this routine and stick to it, these strategies can be tremendously helpful in reducing frustration and clutter. Be sure to download and print out our Keys for Organization, so that you can always keep these tips in mind.
MADISON HOUSE AUTISM FOUNDATION
Ahrentzen, S., & Steele, K. (2009). Advancing full spectrum housing: Designing for adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders.
Gosweiler, K. (2016, December 13). You aut to know: What helps adults with autism thrive. Madison House Autism Foundation Blog.
Household chores. Living with Asperger’s. (2008, March 11).
Jones, R. (2015, June 6). Nourishing Minimalism. How minimalism can benefit those with sensory issues and special needs.
Kochar, P. (2017, January 25). Designing living spaces for autism on a budget. Madison House Autism Foundation Blog.
Organization skills for autistic adults. Chat for Adults with HFA and Aspergers. (2013, June).