I tried an experiment last week. There was something I really didn’t feel like doing, but needed to get done. It was a licensure application. Necessary, but dreadful.
I was experiencing the typical autistic inertia of starting a new task, especially one that I had never done before and wasn’t sure of all of the necessary steps. Then, it dawned on me that I could use every strategy and tool I knew at once to harness the hyperfocusing abilities of my autistic mind.
This sounds obvious, but I’ve actually never tried to intentionally put myself in that state. It usually only comes naturally when I’m really excited about a project. However, given I had 10 pages of essay writing to complete, I decided this was the perfect time to try.
I had the afternoon free, so I had the time to do it. I quickly did everything I could think of that would ensure my mind would be able to focus. Turns out, I wrote those 10 pages faster than anything I have ever written in my life. Here’s what I did.
Optimize the Environment
I started by cleaning my desk, the room I was working in, and anything within my line of sight. My mind is able to focus better when everything around me is clean and organized. I opened the blinds to my favorite amount of natural sunlight. I also optimized my desk for the task at hand. I had everything I would need in reach (such as documents to refer).
I took care of everything that might interrupt my focused time. I took my dog Egon on an extra long walk so he wouldn’t need to go later. I did some stretches for my neck and head so that they wouldn’t get too sore from sitting too long (a common issue for a writer like myself). I also did other things to ensure sensory sensitivity would not take over, such as putting on my noise-canceling headphones and pinning my hair up so it wouldn’t brush against my face. I removed any items from my environment that might distract me.
Utilize Sensory Stimulation
I put my sensory sensitivity to use by doing things that would keep my brain awake and help me walk that fine line between stimulated and overstimulated. I sprinkled peppermint oil around my working station. I filled my humidifier and set it to my favorite setting. I set the AC to just the right setting where I’d be alert, but not too cold. I dressed in my favorite soft, loose clothing. I put super soft socks near my desk in case my feet got cold. I adjusted the blinds to let in the perfect amount and angle of sunlight. I had my favorite sugary drink available so I could stimulate my taste buds and stay alert.
Stimulate the Brain
For me, food and drinks are the easiest and quickest way to bring a boost of energy to my brain. I picked up a delicious sandwich, chips, and drink to have on the corner of my table whenever I wanted it.
During my breaks, I also moved my body to stay alert. I did gentle stretches to counteract the sitting. I also focused on loosening my neck/head/jaw, which always makes me feel more awake.
I knew I wouldn’t be able to power through 10 pages of an essay in one sitting. So I made a realistic structure for myself where I would work for 50 minutes and get a break for 10 minutes. I set my timer accordingly. I also ensured that during my 10 minute break, I was not doing anything that could accidentally take over my emotional space (such as looking at social media, news, or other such things).
I also didn’t let my “realistic” structure ruin my flow. If I was in the middle of finishing a paragraph when the alarm went off, I kept going until my logic flow was complete. As most autistics will attest, it feels horrible to be interrupted or have to stop an autistic flow process. The realistic structure was more so to motivate me to sit down and work. Sitting down to write 10 pages is overwhelming. Sitting down to write for 50 minutes - not so bad
Accountability in Place
My determination to get my application done started with a conversation with a fellow therapist. We were on the phone talking about our goals for our businesses, and I realized how much this application was weighing on my mind. I committed to her that I would work on it and send her text updates as I did.
Before every 50 minute work period, I would text her that I was starting. During my break, I texted her my update. Her encouragement and accountability was rewarding and kept me going.
No Reward Needed
I finished my 10 pages in three hours. THREE HOURS. I think that was the fastest I’ve ever written an essay of that length. I was so elated, excited, and relieved to be done. I didn’t need any reward - being done was reward enough. Back when I didn’t know I was autistic, I tried techniques (like rewards) offered by the neurotypical world for productivity.
I never would have thought that an autistic identity would lead me to new strategies and techniques that would optimize my mind.
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