Hey, friends. Recently, a great many of us have become families stuck at home with our kiddos (and I hope you are all hanging in). The change in schedules, routines, and daily needs can be huge, and families with neurodivergent members can have even more upheaval than average.
I have been mostly stay-at-home with two young children for more than 5 years, and we are a mix of autistic, ADHD, SPD, executive dysfunction, hyperactive, anxious, and more, so I definite have some experience with this! The key is to really back up and start thinking about the basics, the small stuff, and get your ground back under you before you go for more. In that spirit, here are three steps for being at home as a neurodivergent family, that I sincerely hope will help get you through.
Creating Schedules and Routines for Families Stuck at Home
I have seen many articles about the importance of creating a schedule floating around the internet, and some of them have great points. Even so, many folks underestimate how vitally important it is to have a new schedule and set of routines in place for neurodivergent folks in this time. This may be especially those of us who are autistic, ADHD, anxious, depressed, schizophrenic, and OCD. Adults can make their own schedules (if possible), but they must fit the family needs as much as possible. Kids and teens may need help creating a suitable schedule.
Of course the schedule will contain all of the necessary tasks for the day, including downtime. Having expectations laid out reduces anxiety and stress, and lowered stress can reduce symptoms. But also, if some of your family are medicated, the schedule needs to accommodate that. If your child used to be medicated during early afternoon for the most challenging part of school, but now you are homeschooling in the morning, you may need to talk to their doctor about adjusting the timing of their dose.
I’ve collected a few resources for creating a schedule, and you can review them here. If you have other suggestions that have worked for your family, please do contact me so I can add them.
Do the Hardest Things in the Morning
Did you know that cortisol levels peak right before we wake up in the morning, give us that great energy spurt, and then start to fall again in early afternoon? So most people, assuming their sleep quality is okay and they’re on a traditional sleep schedule, have the most energy and mental clarity in the morning. This is true for spoonies, too. The best hack I have to keep my own life more-or-less on track is to use that energy wisely by doing the hardest thing I have on my list first thing in the morning.
Now, “hardest thing” in this case might be totally different for someone with a neurodevelopmental disorder than for someone with a neurotypical brain. For example, I have a huge amount of phone anxiety, because I can’t understand vocal tone that well without seeing emotional cues on someone’s face. So phone calls, a relatively common part of most peoples’ days, are one of my “hardest things.” I always do them in the morning, because I know I will not have the reserves left by the afternoon.
Some people I know won’t remember to eat all day unless they set up their meals in the morning. Eating regular meals is their “hardest thing.”
Think through what are the hardest things for the people in your family. Putting away clothes, because clothes are scratchy? Getting showered, because of the noise? Getting through the English assignment, because it’s really challenging? Think about whether there’s a way to move those things so you’re doing them earlier in the day.
Make Some Cheat Sheets
Cheat sheets are my best friend, personally, and my kids use them a lot too. I have some huge executive dysfunction issues and am easily overwhelmed, but I respond well to lists. So, when I have a chore on my list that needs to get done, and it seems overwhelming, I can pull up my list where I’ve broken it down into small pieces. So, “Clean the bathroom” becomes 1) Wipe down the counters. 2) Clean the toilet. 3) Check soap and toilet paper, etc. This approach may be even more overwhelming to some brains, but for me, it decreases anxiety over some tasks by 50%, easy.
Another example: my daughter and I both get hungry, forget to eat, and then are too hungry to decide what to eat, leading to meltdown, shutdown, and still not eating. The way I’ve been able to interrupt this pattern is by making us both our own cheat sheets. I have a list on my phone of easy, low-effort meals I can make for myself even when I’m overwhelmed. I don’t have to create a meal anymore – I just have to pick a choice off a list.
My daughter and I made her a pictorial list of her favorite foods that I always keep around. If she gets overwhelmed and can’t talk, she can point to the food and I can get it for her. Here’s an example of my daughter’s food choice sheet. This method has helped my entire family out so much, and can be adapted to a lot of different kinds of problems.
If you need resources for creating visual aids for your household, please check out the Resources page here.