Goal Setting: Advice for Autistics


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Few are aware that autism is not just a social disability. To get the sense of disorganization inside the autistic mind, read the unedited writing of some autistics. They tend to be lengthy, repetitive, without a logical flow and focus.

Professionals call this "executive dysfunction". As a result, some aspects of autism therapy focus on helping autistics set goals, plan, control their impulses and develop flexibility thinking for the unexpected.

Executive Dysfunction Difficulties

Estimation: Many autistics have problems estimating the time, effort and commitment needed to perform tasks. They may develop "False Confidence" - the tendency to grossly over-estimate their talents or abilities to complete tasks together with the insistence that they have no problems delivering these estimates. Wise autistics factor in Murphy's Law, let other people handle what he cannot handle and consults those with relevant experience.

Priority: Autistics are often not able to develop a sense of importance. Everything is equally important. Non-autistics have an instinct for priority and will automatically zoom in to what is important (to them). Learning logical rules for scheduling is a very poor substitute for instinct. I believe that a major factor lies with the difficulty distinguishing likely from unlikely futures.

Big Picture / Coherence: Autistics tend to see too many patterns and details, causing them to overload other people with details. Unable to see the big picture of human systems, they tend to focus on certain pet topics or details while excluding the important themes. This will wreck havoc in their career if they take on a management role.

Slow or Rash Decisions: Without instincts to guide them, decision making become a long and drawn out process of limited logical analysis. Some autistics become impatient and decide to short-cut decision-making. However, such decisions often turn out to be rash (and disastrous).

Exclusive Planning: Autistics find it difficult to include other people who have different objectives and personalities in their plans. No matter how much they fortify their projects with contingency plans, unpredictable behavior by people inevitable sinks it (like the Titanic).

Absolute Thinking: When confronted with a frustrating change of plans or some other personal emergency, some autistics feel an urge to give up and walk away. They may feel that their success is either all or nothing - if they could not accomplish a perfect outcome then it is a total failure. They find it hard to accept the concept of "just good enough".

Over-Planning: Some autistics become overly dependent on planning, spending more time planning than doing work. [This is not a Dilbert joke.] It is wiser to work with a simple and quick to use system than a complicated one because human beings cannot function like computers.

Surrendered Decision Making: Many autistics, even high functioning ones, surrender much decision making because they could not commit the mental resources for it. Otherwise, they may find situations too confused so they simply follow what other people say. As a result, they may be manipulated by emotionally disturbed people or exploited by those with hidden agendas.

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Advice for Autistics

Plan within Abilities: Do not make any unproven claims about your abilities (i.e. claims not backed up by past experience). You may find yourself unable to deliver on them, creating a bad impression on those who believed in you. Work your way slowly to greatness by asking to do simple things that are just slightly above your existing achievements. Be humble and patient enough to accept that it takes time to achieve great things.

Plan with Experience: Whatever you do, remember to learn from past experience or the experiences of others. There are many unexpected obstacles that you will not know until you try. It is wiser to prepare for them.

Simplify Plans: Throw out all the planning systems you have learnt. Stick with a simple checklist and calendar. As a guideline, make sure that for every minute you plan, you are doing actual work for 10 minutes.

Plan Short-Term, Intend Long-Term: Since most of your plans are not going to work, focus on how to achieve short-term goals. Instead of planning details, visualize and describe outcomes for the long term:

  • Choose a worthy ambition you love to do
  • Explore the commitment and realistic effort you must make to get there
  • Set a deadline to achieve your ambition
  • Set simple goals with deadlines to move you towards your ambition
  • Trust that you will eventually find your way there

Mind your own business: Focus on doing your job well. Avoid doing other people's job or commenting on how they should do things. Only after you have acquired more experience and demonstrated your diligence and skills should you consider sharing your opinion.

Let other people plan: Be humble enough to accept your limitations and let other people help plan for you. Choose someone who can work with you and listen to them. You can focus on more meaningful things this way.

Promise & Commit: Make promises carefully and sparingly, then make sure you deliver on them. If you could not deliver on your promises, people will not trust your ability to deliver. As a result, they will not grant you the opportunities to develop your skills or do something more important and meaningful.

Do It: There are many autistics who are "Eternal Students" who study extensively but never apply their knowledge in practical life. They are reluctant to commit to anything because they feel that they are not prepared enough. If you are one of them, take heed! Start doing something simple so that you can experience the thrill and joy of putting your ideas into practice.

Note: I have written a New Year's Resolution Prayer for those who are committing to a new beginning.

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