By Patty Laushman
Independence is a journey that comes with its own set of challenges, especially for autistic individuals stepping into a world tailored to neurotypical norms. Living on your own for the first time is a major milestone. It’s also an opportunity for growth, self-discovery, and empowerment. However, as exciting as this transition can be, it can also bring about uncertainties and require unique adaptations when you are autistic.
This blog post aims to provide practical tips for managing a household, navigating social connections, and more. It is not designed to be a comprehensive checklist of everything you need to know, but it should help you identify areas in which you are prepared and areas in which you might need to do a little work.
While reading this blog post, it’s important to note that every autistic individual's experience is unique. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, and what works for one person may not work for another. This is meant to be a starting point, so tailor these ideas and strategies to fit your situation.
Start Early if Possible
Crucial to this process is recognizing that the journey toward independence for autistic individuals begins long before leaving the family home. It's ideal to initiate the independent living preparation process in advance. This preparation can involve developing skills, setting routines, and establishing support systems that cater to your strengths and areas that present more of a challenge.
The reality, though, is that many people do not discover they aren’t prepared until the moment arrives that they are not able to make a huge developmental leap, such as the transition from high school to college, college to work, or living at home to living on your own.
If this describes you, what’s important is to start TODAY! Identify what you need to know through the use of this guide and get started on filling the gaps.
Understanding Your Individual Needs to Thrive
Reflect on areas where you excel and those that present more of a challenge. This could be sensory sensitivities, social interactions, or executive functioning tasks. Consider using tools like journals or apps that can help you track your daily experiences and identify patterns. Think about what is easy for you and what is causing you problems.
If you are living with others, like parents or roommates, you may not even be aware of the ways they are providing support.
They can provide insights into your strengths and areas for growth from an external perspective. They may even be able to help you improve in areas that are holding you back from optimizing your self-sufficiency, so don’t be afraid to lean on others. No one is supposed to be completely independent – we are all interdependent.
In the following sections, we will discuss specific tactics for building the skills and environment needed to maximize self-sufficiency and thrive.
Creating a Supportive Living Environment
Assess your sensory sensitivities and preferences. Consider factors like lighting (natural versus artificial), color schemes, noise levels, and textures. Create areas in your home that cater to your sensory needs, such as quiet zones, dimmable lights, or spaces with minimal visual clutter. This will give you a reliable place to decompress when you need it.
Organizing for Ease and Comfort
Implement organizational systems like clear labeling, consistent storage places for items, and minimizing clutter. Also, consider the layout of your furniture and possessions to create a flow that feels natural and reduces anxiety or confusion. If you struggle to remember where things are stored, having more open storage like racks or clear containers and cabinet faces can help tremendously.
Personalizing Your Space
Decorate and personalize your living space in a way that reflects your interests, passions, and comforts. This could include artwork, collectibles, or plants. Make sure your personal space feels safe and comforting. It should feel like a peaceful sanctuary that you can retreat to when life feels overwhelming.
Tech for Daily Living
There has never been a better time in the history of the world for someone who benefits from using technology to support their daily living. These tools can help you stay on track if you have challenges with executive functioning.
Apps and devices can assist with daily tasks, like reminders for taking medication, managing appointments, or grocery lists and shopping. You should also consider smart home devices like programmable thermostats or smart lights that can be controlled remotely and adjusted to your comfort. Lastly, if you need it, use assistive technology that can make reading, writing, or other activities more accessible and enjoyable.
Regularly review and adjust your routine as needed. What works for you now will very likely change as your circumstances and skills change, so be prepared to make changes along the way.
Safety and Security
Invest in security systems or devices that make you feel safe, like doorbell cameras or emergency alert systems. Make sure you have easy access to emergency contacts and know how to use them if needed.
Managing Daily Responsibilities
Create a Personal Daily Routine
Routines benefit autistic individuals by providing structure and reducing uncertainty and anxiety. You can leverage this as a strength in creating a routine that enables you to handle the numerous tasks you need to do each day to thrive.
Start by creating a morning routine and a bedtime routine. Then consider graduating to an outline for a basic structure for your day, adjusting it based on your natural rhythms. Include time for self-care and relaxation as well as sensory breaks if needed. This will get you well on your way to thriving.
Just remember to incorporate some flexibility to cope with unexpected changes or events. Develop strategies to deal with disruptions, like having a “plan B” for different scenarios.
Cooking and Meal Preparation
Start with simple recipes and gradually explore more complex ones as you become more confident. Consider meal prepping in advance to reduce daily cooking stress. You can also use visual aids or cooking apps for guidance and reminders.
Many neurodivergent people find creating a meal plan, shopping, and cooking very challenging because of the numerous executive functioning skills required to pull this off. Our friends at Life Skills Advocate have created a helpful aid called The Neurodivergent-Friendly Cookbook. You can get 20% off the digital version by using the coupon code THRIVE20. Note, that we do NOT get a commission for this recommendation.
When thinking about cleaning their living space, many neurodivergent adults get overwhelmed and don’t know where to start. It’s important to make sure your cleaning schedule breaks tasks into manageable steps. Use checklists to ensure all tasks are completed and to provide a sense of accomplishment.
Find sensory-friendly cleaning supplies if you are sensitive to smells or textures. Also, wearing facemasks like the ones worn during the pandemic can cut down on bothersome odors, and gloves may help cut down on tactile sensitivities.
Establish a routine for doing laundry, including sorting, washing, and putting clothes away. Many Thrive Autism Coaching clients find laundry to be the most difficult chore they need to handle because of the massive need for executive functioning skills to complete the process from beginning to end.
If this is you, consider the purpose of doing laundry – to have clean clothes that do not smell available when you are going to spend time around others or when you leave the house. If you pick your clean clothes from a pile on your laundry room floor to get dressed, you’ve still met the criteria. You win!
If this made you laugh, you might enjoy one of the resources from our recommended reading section called How to Keep House While Drowning: A Gentle Approach to Cleaning and Organizing by KC Davis, LPC.
Grocery Shopping and Errands
Plan your shopping trips during less busy times if crowds and noise are bothersome. You can also use grocery delivery services or curbside pickup options if available. You should also keep a running list of needed items to streamline your shopping trips. We at Thrive Autism Coaching love the free app OurGroceries (iOS Android) to keep checklists of all kinds. I use it so much, I went ahead and paid the $2.99 to go ad-free so the creators would benefit.
Create a simple budget to track income and expenses. There are apps and templates available to simplify this process. Prioritize important expenses like rent, utilities, and groceries. Afterward, allocate funds for savings and leisure. Then make sure to check your budget each month to make sure you are staying within the limits. It doesn’t help to have a budget if you never look at it!
Many of Thrive Autism Coaching’s clients use Intuit’s Credit Karma app to set budgets and track expenses. It’s not as good as the previous Mint app in terms of budgeting features, but it’s the best free app we can find. Many people also like YNAB which stands for “You Need a Budget,” which is available for iOS and Android, but it’s not free.
We also recommend the FDIC’s free Money Smart program with lots of ways to learn about money online.
Speaking of budgeting, paying bills on time is an important part of living independently. Set up reminders for bill payments to avoid late fees. Use automatic payment options where available to simplify the process and ensure you don’t end up paying late – but make sure your account has enough money to cover the expense!
Banking and Savings
Familiarize yourself with basic banking operations, such as using a debit card, checking account balances, and online banking. Start a savings account for emergencies or future goals. Some banks have programs where every time you purchase something with your checking account, the bank will automatically move a dollar into your savings account to encourage savings.
Seeking Financial Advice
Don't hesitate to seek professional advice or assistance in managing finances, especially for more complex tasks like taxes or investments. A Certified Financial Planner™ is a good place to start. Sometimes there are even resources and workshops specifically designed for individuals with disabilities.
Social Connections and Community Engagement
Understanding Your Social Needs
Reflect on your social preferences, whether you enjoy one-on-one interactions, small groups, or larger gatherings. Just like neurotypical people, autistic individuals vary along a bell curve in terms of how much social interaction is optimal for them. Know your limits and set boundaries to avoid social burnout.
Maintaining Existing Relationships
Keep in touch with your family and friends. This can be through regular calls, texts, or occasional meet-ups. If face-to-face interactions are challenging, then use social media and online platforms to stay connected.
It is sometimes very hard for autistic individuals to maintain relationships like this because they just don’t think about initiating contact or responding when someone else initiates. If this is you, try scheduling regular time each day for maybe 15 minutes to respond to all communications and reach out to people you haven’t talked with in a while.
Making New Connections
Join clubs, groups, or classes that align with your interests. This can be a great way to meet like-minded individuals, and as we know, many friendships are based on common interests.
If this idea is just too anxiety-provoking for you, consider online communities or forums where you can connect with others from the safety of your home at your own pace. Then once you get more comfortable with this, consider graduating to in-person Meetup.com groups that are focused on your interests.
Local Support Groups and Services
Look for local support groups specifically for autistic individuals. These groups can provide a sense of community and shared understanding. Use services offered by local community centers, libraries, or organizations dedicated to helping individuals with disabilities, particularly the Autism Society of America or your local Autism Society branch. They typically offer these types of groups and keep lists of other resources.
Health and Well-Being
Establishing an Exercise Routine
Here is the idea of leveraging something that works for many autistic adults – routines. Try to make regular physical activities that you enjoy and suit your sensory preferences, such as walking, swimming, yoga, or cycling, part of your routine.
If you’re struggling to make this happen, consider engaging a body double or signing up for a class that you feel compelled to attend since you’ve paid for it.
Regular Health Checkups
Now that you’re living on your own, you’ll need to schedule your medical appointments yourself. Maintain regular medical and dental check-ups and other appointments if you are not feeling well. Consider creating a calendar or setting reminders to track these appointments.
Accessing appropriate medical care can be a huge challenge for many autistic individuals for a wide variety of reasons that could fill a separate blog post. Ideally, try to find healthcare providers who have experience with – or at least an understanding of – autism.
Establish a regular sleep schedule to ensure adequate rest. Create a comfortable sleep environment, considering factors like room temperature and bedding, and minimize light or noise disruptions. The best thing you can do to maintain quality sleep, especially if you struggle with insomnia, is to wake up at the same time each morning. This is even more important than going to bed at the same time.
When you first begin living on your own, your stress level is going to spike. Make sure you know what strategies work for you to manage stress. Recognize signs of stress or anxiety early and take steps to address them. Physical exercise is always a winner, even if it’s just a 15-minute walk.
Building a Support Network
Create a support network that includes friends, family, therapists, or support groups. Remember, it's okay to ask for help and share your experiences with trusted individuals. Remember, no one is truly independent. This is not even a desirable state – we were born to be interdependent.
Acknowledge your feelings and emotions as valid and important. Practice self-compassion and patience with yourself. Keep a journal or use creative outlets like art or music to express and process emotions.
Talk with a trusted friend or family member, and if you find yourself struggling, an autism life coach can help you identify patterns that are causing you problems.
And if you are experiencing clinical depression, anxiety, or suicidal ideation, there is no substitute for a neurodiversity-informed and -affirming mental health therapist. Do not delay in finding help if you find yourself in this state.
The key to thriving while living independently lies in recognizing and embracing your unique strengths and challenges. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to independent living. It's about finding what works best for you and adapting strategies to fit your individual needs.
Wherever you’re at is valid. Whether it’s planning how you’ll live independently ahead of time, tailoring your living space to suit your sensory preferences, or finding the right balance in social interactions, each step you take is a move toward a more fulfilling life.
Most importantly, know that seeking support and resources is not a sign of weakness but a step toward resilience and self-sufficiency. Whether reaching out to support networks, using technology and tools, or seeking professional advice, these resources can enhance your ability to live independently while honoring your unique perspective as an autistic individual.
As you navigate independent living, celebrate your achievements, learn from the challenges, and continue to grow and adapt. Your journey is your own, and it holds the promise of a life lived with authenticity and empowerment. Make sure to look back occasionally for perspective on how far you’ve come. Ultimately, if you keep at it, what you will find is that you are living your best life!