Planning to Learn: Creating and Using a Personal Planner for Young People on the Autism Spectrum

Planning to Learn: Creating and Using a Personal Planner with Young People on the Autism Spectrum (Paperback)by Keely Harper-Hill (Author), Stephanie Lord (Author)

Planning my work schedule effectively and efficiently is something that I have always found difficult. I don’t know why as it should be a very straight forward process.

Part of the reason is that I haven’t come across a text that explains the salient and simply lays out the key requirements for addressing them. Until now….

Planning to Learn is written for teachers of young children – very young children. However, the principles are extendable to adults and the workplace – even for someone working in a more senior capacity.

The book is divided into five areas or plans: Making a Plan; Plans to Calm; Plans to be Organised, Plans to be with People and; Plans to Think, but starts off by providing some background information and practical planning techniques.

From the perspective of an adult, the issues presented by late diagnosis are referred to early on and how learning planning strategies then have to occur on a daily basis, rather than being able to draw on previously developed, long term strategies. A major difficulty, it is argued, is taking knowledge accrued in one scenario and then applying it effectively in another.

To build this capability, the book outlines four key behaviours including extricating oneself from difficult or anxiety provoking situations immediately; cognitively “applying” a halt if negative thoughts begin to occur; having a weekly and daily timetable for referral as a means of assistance and; undertaking “debriefs” with adults after an event to formulate new strategies for future reference.

I can resonate with all of these behaviours and believe that developing them can deliver real benefits in the workplace.

According to Planning to Learn there are five key planning elements.

Practical Planning

This section begins by looking at related autistic traits: attention, memory and coping and calming skills and how plans should be formulated to deal effectively with each. A “planner” is central to this.

The aim is to assist with thinking, recording and organising daily activities or events. Formulating this beforehand, and outside of normal activities to facilitate objective analysis whilst calm, is a key requirement.

The reason for this is, is that doing so allows for objectivity, a clear mind and when one is not under any pressure. Personally, I have found this virtually essential: if I am stressed I cannot think clearly or coherently.

The process involves drawing up a plan consisting of the key elements, role-playing with trusted adults to practice and then applying to real-life scenarios to learn and bring about desired changes.

From my perspective, this would entail identifying problematic events such as confrontation with others, preparing for meetings and identifying past plans that can act as learning templates when undertaking a new task for the first time.

Making the Plan

This involves identifying the key elements or actions of any personal work plan or which there are five:

• Organising people to make the plan;
• Self organisation;
• What happens when things don’t go according to [the] plan;
• Staying calm when things go wrong and;
• “We all have jobs to do” or coping with other demands that inevitably intrude.

Central to this stage is identifying past occurrences where specific problems have occurred. The assertion that “planning puts one in control” is what struck me as particularly salient. Identifying what priorities are personally important from a work perspective and then new ways of doing something for enhanced performance and also requisites.

Doing this involves two processes:

a) learning, watching and practising something new which involves asking for assistance from others.

This is something that I am conscious of not doing enough of previously. As someone working in a more senior role, I have viewed asking for assistance as a sign of weakness.

However, the opposite is I feel true. There is nothing wrong in seeking advice from others who are well qualified. Moreover, doing so often also makes colleagues feel valued and facilitates personal acceptance.

b) Easy Job, Hard Job

Some jobs or tasks are harder than others, so planning the daily schedule around both can be helpful.

I often prevaricate or look for excuses not to commence something I find unattractive. To help overcome this the text advocates starting with easier tasks before moving on to harder ones. The day should then finish where possible with an enjoyable task.

I believe this is highly appropriate. Easing into simple or attractive tasks in order to feel comfortable or “in the groove” before attempting something harder really helps me. Starting by answering simple e-mail questions is one example.

According to the authors, planning to do jobs that “have to be done” effectively means not only asking for help, but also taking a break afterwards and knowing when things will happen.

For me, both latter points are sound advice. Instigating breaks reduces pressure and the potential for anxiety to build, as does looking ahead to identify potential “hot spots” which allows for mental preparation and the possible disruption to routines. If I know something is going to be mentally challenging, commencing the task when I am in the right frame of mind makes it inordinately easier.

Plans to Calm

The difficulties of working effectively when stressed or anxious are apparent for everybody. As a manager with AS I find working on anything other than basic tasks when anxious virtually impossible.

Being able to retain calmness is therefore a highly beneficial attribute. This stage identifies four strategies for achieving this:

• Develop a plan for doing so;
• How getting worried, scared or angry means you cannot think rationally and;
• How using gestures to retain calmness and assist in self-thinking.

Successfully satisfying this objective requires understanding certain characteristics. “Plans to Chill Out” recognise that there are environmental factors that trigger stress and anxiety and need to be controlled such as removing oneself in the short term and then returning to the task. From an AS perspective these are fairly well documented, i.e. noise.

The book makes the important differentiation between “chilling out” and “getting out”. The former is going to a “planned” or individualised place alone to calm down and involves time restrictions – you will return in a short time frame to what you were previously doing.

I find this incredibly useful. Staying in a group or situation when I am anxious can be very difficult for me. Going elsewhere and knowing what else to do can really help. Not doing so and waiting can mean even more pressure due to the uncertainty of not knowing what to do.

For me, this means going to a different physical environment i.e. another location and/or talking to a trusted colleague.

The text also talks about remaining calm whilst waiting. There are occasions such as when an important meeting is pending, when I have had to wait and have worried when doing so. Thinking about negatives whilst waiting however, is a source of worry and can lead to panic.

In such scenarios I do something: I write or talk to someone else to distract my thought processes onto positives.

Plans to be Organised

The starting point here is listing all daily activities, and then sequencing them, to identify what is needed – and in what order – to satisfy their completion. Other people who may be involved in these activities may possibly also have access to the list.

The latter requirement is important for me personally. My condition has meant that, often in the past, I have focused on what I need to do and not inform others sufficiently beforehand of what – and when – I require from them. I have expected others to be able to deliver at short notice which, of course, is often not possible.

Related to this is what the book describes as the difference between what one “wants” to do and what one “has” to do which crosses over into weekly planning. If I want to do something I usually can very easily do. If I don’t, then it can become a real personal challenge.

The suggestion of listing times when you know events will happen and adding regular required tasks to them to enable gaps for other activities to be identified is I feel a useful one.

There are two caveats to this process that need to be accounted for:

i) Plans Can Change: accepting changes to a standard routine or unexpected occurrences;
ii) Plans to do a Job: breaking tasks down into key components – what equipment is required, who else is involved how, knowing when the job is completed. Undertaking a dry or practice run is also advocated.

The second point is relatively easy to achieve; the first not. Much as though I try to cognitively accept that changes – sometimes sudden ones – will occur, I still find it difficult.

Identifying times in my schedule to accommodate sudden requirements is helpful. However, what is more so is actively undertaking non-essential tasks prematurely to free up time going forward to reducing the possibility that I will be placed under pressure. Doing so, I find, helps reduce instances of anxiety.

Plans to be with People

Colleagues in the past have commented on how I have not actively sough contact. When they have approached me, they have always said that I am helpful and attentive. However, I have not gone out of my way to inter-relate with them.

This is, of course, a direct consequence of my AS. The book contains useful suggestions that enable people to accommodate your personal requirements such as informing others when you are worried or angry, practising saying things that are difficult and then writing them down for future reference.

All of these things can facilitate more effective – and harmonious – relations with fellow workers.

The adage “think it, don’t say it” when tempted to use a personal or private word in public I believe is massively important. The key point is understanding how there are certain phrases or words which are unacceptable in the workplace.

I don’t believe that I have used many specific words that are wholly unacceptable throughout my career. However, I am conscious of the fact that I may have delivered them in an inappropriate fashion. As someone once remarked to me: “its not what you say but how!”

The authors differentiation between “public words – those that can be acceptably used – and “private” words. Public words can be used with everyone; greater care needs to be exercised with private ones as they have the potential to upset. If in doubt “think it, don’t say it”.

Mostly the latter relate to personal issues and the book makes the point of how when talking gets hard the wrong words tend to be used. For me, I find that this usually occurs when I am under pressure or, more pertinently, dealing with aggressive or confrontational people whose language – both verbal and non-verbal – I have sometimes found provocative and difficult to deal with unemotionally and rationally.

The book addresses this issue by investigating how the communication styles of others can cause anxiety. Resolving this issue means acknowledging ones reactions to others can be difficult for them and then identifying more appropriate responses.

For me, this involves talking in a less confrontational and more amenable manner to other people no matter how aggressively or unacceptably they are to me. To achieve this I have tried to cognitively retain inner and outer calmness – which, of course, is a central message of Planning to Learn!

The technique of talking to trusted others is also advocated in order to build up plans for use with other personalities who are more difficult. In my book Managing With Asperger Syndrome, I refer to the benefits that I have accrued from having mentors or observing others who are skilled in these areas.

The book then makes the salient point how communication skills for someone with AS are a major challenge. However, it can be done.

Changing involves identifying what one wants to do differently and then practising related communication and interactions in a safe context. If a communication problem is especially problematic, working with a professional such as a speech therapist to overcome them is advocated, something which I think is especially sensible advice in relation to work place issues for someone with AS such as dealing with aggressive people

Plans to Think

Finally, the book looks at some specific issues for which plans can be made.

i) plans to think when things go well – and when they don’t

According to the authors’, young people with autism struggle to effectively think (or reflect) about things that have happened. This may be because they simply can’t remember or understand exactly a particular chain of events. Making plans to think about what has happened is important however to learning successfully. Doing so reinforces positive behaviours.

Being in charge of your own actions means remaining calm, getting organised and knowing what is going on both around you and with other people is highly beneficial. For me, the latter is extremely important and essential for the reasons previously outlined.

I have always found it very difficult when things go very wrong or if there is a major incident to remember what occurred. The book makes this point also and advocates writing things down for future reference, something which I personally have always done.

ii) plans for when you are worried or angry

The issue here is preparing for future of unexpected blips. Learning from past experience can provide real benefits.

I am note sure that any of the advice given is especially insightful. The key – again – is to remain calm.

iii) plans to rectify a situation

Processes for “making it right” need to encompass organisational policies and need to involve completing a written record of any incident.

This section concentrated my mind significantly. I feel that I have been to reluctant previously to use official channels to overcome uncertainties or a displeasure I have felt. I certainly have not used them when I have encountered more serious questions such as victimisation. Corporate procedures exist for a reason and should be used.

Prevention beforehand is always of course preferable. The key objective is to identify the difficulties and triggers that arise from the different way a [autistic] person thinks and which can cause problems in the first place.

According to the authors, making plans to “sort something out” helps make the process explicit whilst consistency and transparency can decrease fears associated with it. This process also means acknowledging that there will be consequences and – possibly – sanctions.

This point was, for me, one of the most important messages in the book. Being consciously aware that I am somehow different and therefore (unjustifiably) at fault in some way because of my condition, has meant that I have backed off at times when I should have confronted a situation earlier.

Appreciating that my demeanour has at times – unintentionally – affronted others is important – this is the communication style referred to earlier – meaning that I too need to work at my approach to smooth relations with colleagues.

Related to this is what the book describes as how one might think you may “know” why things went wrong or how you may “think” you know what happened – but how this can be very different to what others think.

Understanding not only what you are thinking and feeling, but what others are as well is essential. It often provides the basis for putting things right and may involve either saying sorry or explaining more clearly to others what you were thinking.

Personally, my lower self-confidence in my ability to address inter-personal difficulties means that having a formal structure or plan to which I can refer when faced with such difficulties is enormously beneficial. This may involve use of the official corporate procedures referred to earlier.

iv) plans to succeed

The objective here is to build self-belief and the key method for achieving this is to recollect past – successful – experiences.

I am sometimes guilty of this. As I tried to communicate in Managing with Asperger Syndrome, though I have undoubtedly encountered difficulties as a manager, I have chalked up significant successes as well. As Planning to Learn says in its conclusion:

“When things get hard it can be difficult to remember how amazing you are!”

Overall a very useful text. Though the key lessons – like the book’s style – are necessarily simplistic given the age of its intended target audience, they remain every bit as relevant to a workplace context also.

Or, as Clinical psychologist John Clements is quoted on the back cover as saying;

“The approach and tools described in this book will repay the investment of effort to put them into practice.

They will assist in the improvement of many problematic situations. More importantly, if used over time, they build the foundations that will help people with Asperger syndrome grow in their abilities to think and problem solve and to function effectively and with confidence in challenging situations.

These gains in competence and self-esteem will transform our expectations for their future lives”.

Managing with Asperger Syndrome