Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Better Living Through Flowcharts

Here’s a moment from Glee that stuck with me for a long time. Some of the main characters are talking in the choir room, and they look over and see that Brittany, the show’s “dumb blond,” has been sitting there the whole time. When they ask her what she’s doing there, she says that she took some cold medicine and fell asleep, and when she woke up, “I forgot how to leave.” Cue laughter as viewers think to themselves, “Brittany’s so dumb, she forgets how to leave a room.”

I didn’t laugh when I saw this, because this is actually something that I regularly do.

This is a bit difficult to explain. The concept of how to leave a room is something that I understand at all times, but within that concept there are tiny, practical steps that I have to keep lined up in my head. If I don’t have to take anything with me, the steps might simply be “stand up, walk to door, open door.” (This can create its own set of problems if I’m having difficulty making my body respond to the commands of my brain, which does occasionally happen.) But if I do have to take things with me, I have to organize and gather my things before I can leave. If I have to get dressed, or even leave and get showered and come back and get dressed, and leave and brush my teeth and come back and then gather my things – that’s a lot of steps.

Here’s what happens: I’m in my room in the morning, and I’m tired because I haven’t gotten enough sleep, and I can’t get all the steps lined up right. Maybe I’ve just removed my pajama top and I can’t remember what to do. Some part of my brain knows that the next step is to put on a bathrobe before proceeding to the shower, but I’m having trouble accessing that information. In this foggy state, I look around the room and I see my laptop. Aha! I can check all my favorite blogs! Ten or twenty minutes later, I realize that my class starts pretty soon and I haven’t even put my bathrobe on.

That’s pretty much a typical morning for me. Under more adverse circumstances, the problem gets worse. One memorable Saturday morning last semester, I awoke to pounding music echoing through my ceiling. That morning, the process of showering, dressing, and leaving took four hours. That’s four hours spent mostly in my room, crying in frustration because the noise was so awful and I wanted more than anything to go away, but I didn’t know how.

I was telling my girlfriend about the problem of getting stuck in my room, and she came up with an ingenious solution. (By the way, guys, this is why college is awesome: when I tell my friends about stuff like this, they are supportive and even come up with ideas instead of, say, laughing nervously or calling me a freak.) She proposed that if I made myself a list of the steps necessary to exit the room, I could reference this list whenever I was confused.

Because I am a giant nerd, the proposed list ended up as a flowchart:

[Image: a hand-drawn flow chart which gives the viewer detailed instructions in how to leave the room, with separate paths for showering and not showering, and later two different ways to pack for going out.]

This is currently taped to the door of my closet and I’ve referenced it several times. Hopefully it will help me keep on track in the mornings and get out of the room in an emergency. I’m very happy with it. I think part of learning to live more independently is finding ways to make my life easier.


  1. you didn't close your bracket


    this is very cute and I hope it will help you

  2. Agh the bracket. I noticed that the other day; I've since corrected it on the actual chart, but that was after I scanned it.

  3. i SO love this. Flow charts make me happy!!!

  4. I made a lot of lists and flowcharts last year. I hope they work for you; they didn't for me. I think I was already to stressed/anxious/executive dysfunctional to make use of them.

    Is this your first year at college?

  5. I like the flowchart idea! They look nicer than lists that simply list one thing underneath another- it looks less draining and tedious than the 'laundry lists' I usually make- I need one of these for myself, especially since I'm a mother of 2- I'd put things like, "did you pack enough pampers?" "Do you have a fun book for him to read?" Things like that- thanks very much for sharing :)

  6. Fantastic Decision Tree diagram!!! You have taught me more about autism in one article than all of the media I have heard combined on the subject; all in a most humanizing, funny, comprehensible way. And I work with people with autism!

    Have you ever tried or been showed diagramming techniques for other things, such as planning school work, papers, essays, test preparation, prioritizing, planning? Since creating this diagram came so naturally to you, (way easier than leaving the room, for example LOL) you might find other visual mapping strategies useful for making schoolwork and other tasks easier. Please contact me if you would like to discuss this further.

    Again, thank you for this clever, funny, insightful blog.

  7. This is an excellent idea. I need to make a flowchart like this too. I get so extremely distracted thinking about stuff when I try to leave the house, that I spend forever running up and down the stairs again, often already wearing my jacket, and getting warmer and warmer. It has gotten much worse now that I also need to prepare my lunch, since my canteen is so terrible.
    The problem is where to put the flowchart. Maybe I need several copies to put on various doors in the house... I would immediately lose it if I did not put it up the wall.