Writing Mental Heuristics

Children with autism tend to rely on fixed rules rather than flexible guidelines. This makes it difficult for them to develop appropriate, spontaneous reactions to new situations. Much like a computer program dialog box awaiting instructions, they tend to freeze when encountering the unknown.

A helpful coping strategy is to learn heuristics through social stories and simple rules, but there are so many possible rules and situations that it is not possible to teach them all. [Refer to the CYC project to find out how difficult it is to explain common sense.] The only sustainable way is to help the child with autism learn to create and modify their heuristics. In this article, I will briefly explain how.


As a child, I learned the concept of preparation:

  • Read widely to learn new ideas and concepts
  • Observe and see what resources and knowledge are available for application now
  • Experiment and see what works, and what does not
  • Keep improving oneself to prepare for what may come

As a teenager, I learned the key concept of improvising:

  • Almost all situations can be improved in one’s favor, so start thinking of ways to make the situation better
  • Take action to solve a problem instead of panicking or freezing
  • Create a simple solution that works well enough to solve a problem with the limited time and resources available

Understanding these concepts set up the foundation to write my own heuristics. I then discovered a few steps to unlock my ability.


I start noticing that something needs to be corrected. For instance, I found that I kept having trouble remembering to follow the teachers’ instructions to bring specified materials to class.

Sometimes, a heuristic already exists but needs to be modified. For instance, spending half an hour researching bus routes and an hour extra travel time for 50 cents of savings on the bus fare is not worthwhile. The heuristic of researching bus routes before traveling in order to save money ended up wasting much time.


Looking at the problem from a wider perspective can reveal its source and help to simplify the heuristics. For instance, the difficulty in remembering what to bring is actually part of a bigger problem of remembering instructions issued by others. Likewise, I found that I have been skimping on all expenses, not just my bus fare.


When formulating the response, consider the final objectives. Examples include:

  • To gain time
  • To save costs
  • To have a richer social life
  • To be able to do more of a desirable activity
  • To be able to avoid an undesirable activity
  • To create the foundation to be free to live one’s desired lifestyle

For instance, I could define the objective of my new heuristic as assisting me to keep track of all matters that I need to attend to in my daily life.

As another example, I previously defined the purpose of using the public transport heuristic as getting to a destination as cheaply as possible. I could amend the heuristic to taking the shortest time to travel between my desired destinations at an affordable cost, including both waiting time and planning time for the journey.


A heuristics can be evaluated in a few areas. Ideally, we would select a heuristic with the following:

  • Ease of implementation: As humans have limited processing abilities, it is best to keep the rules simple and use round numbers for calculations.
  • Universality: It should be able to work for a wide variety of situations.
  • Balance: It should consider as many factors as possible, not just one or two factors. User comfort and long-term happiness are also important.
  • Efficiency: It should save much time, money and effort.

The attention heuristics can be expressed in this manner:

  1. When an interruption, assess if the task can be completed within 5 minutes.
  2. If so, stop what you are doing and attend to it.
  3. If no, then write the task into a notepad to remind yourself to finish it later.

The transportation heuristic can be expressed in this manner:

  1. Estimate if we can expect to travel to the destination under consideration lesser than 8 times in our lifetime.
  2. If yes, just take a direct bus. If a direct bus route is unavailable, choose a direct bus that goes nearest to the destination, and then choose another bus service to transfer to the destination.
  3. If no, then spend up to half an hour to calculate the optimized bus route with detailed information including expected travel and waiting time.

Note that I chose not to use a mathematical formula, as it will be hard to know the exact numbers in real life.

We can also research on the heuristics used by other people to solve their problems.


Once the heuristic has been created, think back for the past few instance when it can be useful, and imagine what will happen if we applied the heuristic.


Once the heuristic is confirmed, then it will be helpful to find a way to remind ourselves to implement them. Placing a printed piece of paper in a commonly accessed area is a common method. For the bus transportation heuristic, placing a bookmark in the bus guidebook and street directory was helpful for me.


Heuristics can be improved over time, and it is a good habit to rethink one’s policies. When I started earning an income from a day job, I still maintained an excessively thrifty lifestyle that was bad for my socializing and productivity. I realized that the heuristic of avoiding all optional expenses does not work well.

I revised the heuristic to consider cost in terms of the value of the time I need to work versus the amount of pleasure I get. For instance, a 3-day vacation may cost me a total of $1,000. If my time is worth $20 per hour, I will need to work 50 hours in order to earn the vacation. Seen in this way, the pain of work is not worth the joy of the vacation. However, if I earn $200 per day, the vacation will be worthwhile since I will only work for 5 hours to enjoy 3 days.

Likewise, I also created a new heuristic specifically for purchasing productivity tools and services based on the same concept. If what I pay is lesser than the value of the time I saved, then it is worthwhile to purchase it. For example, if I can save 1 hour of time (worth $20) by taking a taxi for $15, I will find it of value.