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Struggling with daily living activities while autistic: Why it happens and how to help

February 1st, 2024

Aly Laube

You might be surprised by how long your list gets once you start writing down all your daily living activities.

Roll out of bed. Brush your teeth. Wash your face. Go to the bathroom. Wash your hands. Shower or bathe. Get dry. Get dressed and ready. Drink water — many times throughout the day. Eat food — at least three times throughout the day. Clean up the messes you make on the way, etcetera. 

To autistic people, all these stimuli can feel overwhelming. But being able to get these kinds of tasks done is essential to independent living.  

“Independence with activities of daily living is associated with better outcomes in independent living, education, employment, relationships, and mental health,” says a 2021 article in Autism Adulthood. That’s why it matters that we pay attention to how and why autistic adults can find them difficult. 

Our recent survey of autistic adults found that 74 per cent of participants have difficulty with daily cleaning. Sixty-six per cent found running errands challenging, and 60 per cent struggled with cooking. 

Part of the reason is struggling with executive dysfunction — skills needed to multitask, make decisions, prioritize action items, and more. Motor and cognitive function differences can also create barriers to getting tasks done.

Sensory issues have a part to play as well. Imagine if toothpaste in your mouth felt like intense burning or if doing the dishes was so physically repulsive you couldn’t eat or think properly for the rest of the day? That’s average for autistic people who are highly reactive to touch, taste, sound, light, and other sensations.  

Autistic adults who responded to our recent survey shared some common complaints: Work takes all the spoons, leaving few for daily living activities. Solving problems is so time-consuming and frustrating it can become incapacitating. There’s too much work around the house for them to manage for a myriad of reasons. Pain and discomfort from co-occurring conditions contribute to hardship with daily living activities. Some people who would hypothetically benefit from more in-home support can’t get it, so they deal with constant burnout instead. 

Other examples of daily living activities that might be impacted include handling money, shopping, paying bills, managing accounts, clipping your nails, brushing your hair, shaving, haircuts, home maintenance, education, and independent travel. There are many other helpful examples on Learning for a Purpose’s website.  

Socializing is another aspect of daily life that can be difficult for autistic folks, but it’s such a broad and important subject that we’ll be saving that for later articles. 

Someone putting an earplug in their ear. (Canva)
Someone putting an earplug in their ear. (Canva)

Compensatory strategies and systems 

Many of us develop systems to respond to and anticipate these risks. For example, I know I’m sensitive to bright light and loud sounds, but I live near a railroad and a hospital because I’m low-income. Since moving wasn’t an option, and I needed relief from overstimulation and pain to function, I spent months trying out different earplugs and blindfolds. Two years after I moved in, I have different tools to protect my eyes and ears throughout my day: AirPods to listen to music, earplugs to sleep with, noise-cancelling headphones for loud horns, sirens, or construction noise, and more.  

It took me two whole years to get to this point. Time, energy, money, and other resources are all factors to consider when managing your expectations and building a plan around daily living activities. 

Indeed, an Australian survey of autistic adults found that “strengths and challenges were unique to the individual, as were the methods they had developed to manage tasks.” 

“Challenges occurred mostly at the interaction between aspects of the environment (sensory, cognitive, social and cultural) and personal factors such as health conditions and sensory sensitivities,” the abstract says.  

Someone prepares to spray fragrance on their wrist. Only their arms are in frame. (Canva)
Someone prepares to spray fragrance on their wrist. Only their arms are in frame. (Canva)

The spectrum of sensory differences 

It’s important to remember every autistic person has different sensitivities. I have autistic friends who will spiral into a migraine if they end up near someone wearing strong cologne or perfume, while others are obsessed with wearing and trying out tons of strong, unique scents on a regular basis.

The same is true for any sort of input. One autistic person might love laser light shows while another finds them viscerally terrifying. The deep, body-rattling sensation of live drums and bass soothes my nervous system, but it completely disturbs my partner’s, often sending them into a meltdown or shutdown.  

A planner, notebook, pencil, and mug sit on a table. (Canva)
A planner, notebook, pencil, and mug sit on a table. (Canva)

Taking helpful steps forward 

All that’s to say, if you want to know what an autistic person in your life is sensitive to and how you can help — whether you’re autistic or not — ask. They’ve probably figured out what is and isn’t helpful and can advise you on how to help them have a nicer time. If they don’t have the answer, you can offer to help them find one. There’s also a chance they might not be ready, in which case, you can give them time and space to process and offer external resources for them to use when they’re ready. 

If they are ready, work together to make plans for making life easier and chores more doable. 

“Planning the activity and the individual steps required so that it is part of a regular routine may be helpful in this regard,” says an article by The Spectrum, suggesting the use of visual aids in the process.  

“It may be helpful to introduce a limited number of goals initially, and that the pace of learning is measured.” 

Autistic and struggling with daily living activities? You’re not alone. Stay tuned for our upcoming blog articles on this subject. We’ll be offering tips for cooking, cleaning, and more, including some options for adaptive technologies. 

Are you an autistic adult who wants to share their suggestion for making daily living activities easier? Reach out to me at [email protected] 

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