Working from home: Developing a new routine

By Lydia Wayman | March 25, 2020

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By Lydia Wayman. Lydia is an autistic author, speaker, blogger and advocate from Pittsburgh.

Across the United States, employees are working from home as a means of social distancing—a key step in managing the outbreak of COVID-19. For employees on the autism spectrum, this change in routine can be especially challenging. Here are some steps you can take to make your new work routine work for you.

Manage your time

While your usual workday routine may not be possible right now, that doesn’t mean you have to be without a routine at all. Start by determining what tasks you need to accomplish and when they are due. If necessary, contact your supervisor to make sure you are clear about what is most important to work on. Then, break bigger tasks down into steps and schedule them into your days. Try to leave extra time slots open in case you get behind on a task. This way, you have a plan in place for when things don’t go exactly as planned. 

A written schedule or visual routine is a good strategy for time management. You can use an app, a daily planner, or a simple checklist with the tasks you need to complete for the day. Many autistic people like to use visual cues to organize information, such as color-coding by task type or days of the week or using pictures alongside a written schedule. For example, you might shade your “break” times in blue or include a picture of a phone next to any scheduled conference calls.

If you prefer a more flexible approach, you can break the project down by setting a goal for the end of each day. Then list the steps you’ll need to do to reach that goal.

Organize your workspace

Set up a workspace that works to your advantage. As tempting as it is to lounge in bed or in front of the TV with your laptop, this can make it harder to focus during the day and harder to relax at night. Consider your sensory needs—the type of lighting, noise level and seating that allows you to focus. Choose a place that allows for easy access to any paperwork, tools or other items you need without clutter. If you’re having a hard time remembering your new setup, try using trays or bins with clear labels (made using text, color-coding and/or visual cues). 

If your work involves frequent emails, consider setting up your inbox with subfolders and color-coded tags for each sender. You can organize computer documents and files in the same way.

Communicate with co-workers

The same technology that allows teams to work together across countries and continents makes it possible for projects to continue despite the circumstances brought about by COVID-19. Your employer may use a platform or app designed for remote work, such as Basecamp, where team members post announcements, schedules, to-do lists and files. Team meetings may take place over a video- or web-conference platform such as Zoom or Skype. If you are having trouble navigating these platforms, contact your supervisor or a savvy co-worker and ask if they can walk you through how to use the most important functions. 

Since in-person contact is not possible, you might see an increase in emails, phone calls and video conferences. Leave time for responding to these in your daily schedule. Some of these communication methods may be more difficult for you. Don’t be afraid to double-check your understanding following one-to-one emails or phone calls, especially if you were given instructions.

During meetings, consider taking notes, writing down questions or even asking permission to record. If you agree to do or are assigned tasks during the call, you can write them down as a list of action items. Then, you can reach out to the meeting leader, your supervisor or a coworker with your list to confirm or clarify what you will be working on.

Stay well

Successfully working from home is as much about personal wellness as it is about productivity. As much as possible, keep the parts of your day that don’t have to change, like the time you wake up and go to bed, the clothes you wear and meal times. Using these as anchor points can give you a sense of normalcy as you fill in the gaps with your new routine.

For many autistic people, work can be socially draining, so home becomes a place of much-needed alone time. In this case, working from home could mean too much isolation. With social distancing in mind, you can find ways to stay connected to other people once your work day is over—play video games, invite coworkers to a long-distance movie night via Netflix Party or take a walk while staying at least six feet apart.

Make sure you take breaks during the work day for both your body and mind—eat regular meals, get up regularly to stretch or take a short walk, and give your eyes a chance to get away from the screen.

As you develop your new routine, check in with yourself regularly. Are you meeting your goals? Are you getting healthy amounts of sleep, food and exercise? Are you keeping in touch with other people? Are your mood and anxiety level manageable? Keep the big picture in mind—that your wellness is key to successfully working from home, and that your new routine is a good thing because you are helping to keep yourself and others safe.

Autism Speaks does not provide medical or legal advice or services. Rather, Autism Speaks provides general information about autism as a service to the community. The information provided on our website is not a recommendation, referral or endorsement of any resource, therapeutic method, or service provider and does not replace the advice of medical, legal or educational professionals. Autism Speaks has not validated and is not responsible for any information, events, or services provided by third parties. The views and opinions expressed in blogs on our website do not necessarily reflect the views of Autism Speaks.