Start the Semester Prepared: How to Establish Structure & Routines | Organization for Autism Research

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Gain control of your life by using these tips to establish routine in an unstructured environment.  This blog post has been adapted from “Chapter 2: Academics” of OAR’s resource “Finding Your Way: A College Guide for Students on the Spectrum.”

College life brings a variety of new possibilities.  Whether you are living in the dorms or just taking a class or two, opportunities await to meet new friends, try clubs, attend events and concerts, and learn new things. But with these opportunities come important dates and deadlines. Keeping track of everything can easily become overwhelming. To be successful, it is important to start the year prepared with structure and organization in your daily routine and home. Taking the time to create a few simple tools and tricks can help ensure you will have an exciting year.

Tip #1 – Use a Planner

Before jumping into any new activity or adventure, it is important to collect your organizational tools and supplies. In college, your most important tool is your planner. A planner is any kind of portable book you can use to record all of your upcoming activities, events, homework deadlines, and exams. Many students use a planner that includes a weekly view with enough room to write under each day of the week.

Step 1: Collect information on major events and deadlines from relevant sources, such as…

  • School Academic Calendar – This calendar provides holidays and dates when school will not be in session.
  • Syllabi – A syllabus is an outline of the topics that you will learn in a course, and typically includes deadlines for large assignments and exams.
  • Personal or family events – These include birthdays, anniversaries, or other important dates that you should remember.

For more information on preparing academically for your classes, check out Getting Ahead of the Curve: How to Manage Academic Demands.

Step 2: Prepare your Planner

  • Use colored pens – Your planner should contain course deadlines, school holidays, personal events, and school events. Assign a specific color to each of these categories. Use bright colors for school deadlines, as these need to be easily identified and read.
  • Fill out the planner – Work through the course syllabi, school calendar, and personal list of dates to fill out your planner. On the actual day in the planner, write out what the event is and the time that it is occurring. Write clearly and leave enough room for other events if needed. For example:
    • TEST – Algebra, 2pm
    • Grandma’s Birthday – Call to wish her a happy birthday
    • Country Concert – Student Union Center, 5pm
    • Thanksgiving – No classes
  • Set benchmarks – It is important to break down larger exams and projects into small, manageable steps. For a project, write reminders into your planner to work on the project every two weeks and on the same day. For large exams such as finals, schedule in weekly study sessions to allow enough time to learn all of the necessary material and prevent last-minute cramming.

For more information on studying, check out Study Smarter, Not Harder!

Step 3: Establish daily routines

Before classes begin, it is important to establish a consistent, daily schedule to ensure that you can complete your required tasks and activities. A visual schedule is a critical piece of a structured environment, and will help you remember what activities will occur in sequence each day. To create this schedule, map out a weekly overview and identify specific times, preferably the same each day, to complete the following:

  • Morning Routine and getting ready for the day. Set a deadline for getting ready by a certain time of the morning.
  • Day Routine, including eating meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner, and emergency snacks), checking your mail, and attending class.
  • Evening Routine, which should include packing up your backpack for the next day in the event you oversleep. Set a deadline for when to go to sleep so that you get enough rest.

Make sure to overestimate how long an activity will take in case something unexpected happens.

Step 4: Plan your weekly schedule

In addition to these daily tasks, there are several weekly tasks that need to be completed. With the gaps in your schedule, it is important to plan time to study and relax. Use your studying as a motivator to access breaks and rewards for yourself. For example, you can make it a priority to study or complete homework for an hour before earning a 15-minute break to play video games.

Also allow times in the week for the following:

  • Homework & studying: Plan at least three hours every weekday, and at least eight hours on the weekend, for this task. The schedule should be adjusted regularly according to your class schedule and needs.
  • Laundry: Allow approximately 2-4 hours o, depending on how many loads and machines you have.
  • Chores: Schedule at least two hours on the weekend to complete routine chores such as sweeping, putting away belongings, and cleaning up messy areas.

When you have finished your schedule, it is important to make multiple copies. Keep a copy in your planner, posted in a general area in your room, and also by your computer. This way, you can easily access your schedule, which increases your success in following it. If you find that it is difficult to stick to your schedule, adjust it as needed.

Here is an example of a weekly schedule:

Sunday Monday Tuesday
7am – Wake up 7am – Wake up 7am – Wake up
7:30am – Breakfast 7:30am – Breakfast 7:30am – Breakfast
12pm – Lunch 8-9am – Algebra 9-10am – Psychology
1pm – Laundry 12pm – Lunch 12pm – Lunch
3pm – Study 1-2pm – Chemistry 1-2pm – Chemistry
6pm – Dinner 2pm – Break 2pm – Break
  3pm – Study 3pm – Study
  6pm – Dinner 6pm – Dinner
Tip #2 – Let Electronics Help You

Paper planners are ideal for scheduling multi-step tasks and daily routines like those listed previously. However, electronics can be useful to remind you about both routine tasks and major one-time events. If you require medication, injections, or have other daily health needs, for example, use the alarm clock function on your phone or watch to set a daily reminder to finish this task. This reminder is helpful as it does not rely on you to look at your planner or keep a track of the time in order to remember the task. If your medication must be taken at a time that falls during a class, put the alarm on vibrate or talk to your doctor about moving the time when you take your medication.

Tip #3 – Create a Daily Visual Schedule

One last trick to prepare you for college is to set up multiple visual schedules in your room for daily use. Regular routines such as packing your backpack for class or getting dressed in the morning consist of a long list of small steps, and it is easy to overlook one or two. However, when a step is forgotten, it can impact your entire day. As mentioned previously, visual schedules create structure to your daily routines by creating visual reminders of all of the steps needed to finish the entire routine. These schedules are depicted vertically and can be written using pictures or text. It is important to place these visuals in a location that can be easily seen, such as by the front door, to easily remind you to complete the task.

Schedules can be created for any kind of task, and are recommended for the following tasks for at least the first 2-3 months of college:

  • Morning Routine: taking a shower, applying deodorant, brushing teeth, getting dressed, etc.
  • Preparing Laundry: sorting clothing into color piles, collecting quarters and laundry detergent
  • Packing Backpack: placing class assignments, textbooks, notebooks, planner, pen, pencil, and calculator in your backpack.
  • Evening Routine: getting into pajamas, brushing teeth, etc.

College life can be difficult for anyone because it is easy to get caught in the thrill of the college experience and lose track of necessary daily tasks and routines.  The use of simple visual schedules like these have been empirically shown to provide consistency and stability that will improve your success with your college experience.

For more information, check out Finding Your Way: A College Guide for Students on the Spectrum. The purpose of this guide is to help you as an incoming or current college student with autism gain a better understanding of the academic, social, and financial supports, services, and resources needed to successfully navigate college.

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