Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Jobs and disability by the numbers

Australian workplace participation rate: 83%

Australian workplace participation rate for people with disability: 54%

Australian workplace participation rate for people on the autism spectrum: 34%

(2011 figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics as reported by The Morning Bulletin 26/04/14 p60)

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Aspergers and disclosure and out-ness and passing

Within three months I'll probably be a uni student again: new city, new home, new course leading to a new career.  It's been coming for a while, and it's fantastic to have a clear plan after the existential malaise that's followed me around since I left my old job a year ago.

But you don't look...
But it's brought with it a stack of questions about how 'out' about Aspergers I'm going to be, both while I'm studying and in the workplace afterwards.

On one hand, ever since I was diagnosed I've been really open about it, disclosing up front in any situation where it might be vaguely relevant.  I've felt that was important, because it gives people a reason for my quirks and social anxiety/shyness/general trouble with people before they jump to the conclusion that I'm stuck up, a bitch, or have something against them personally.  A secondary consideration is that it's also important from the awareness point of view, showing the world that Aspergers isn't all maths-clever little boys who love trains.

On this same hand, as a uni student with a disability I'll be able to get help and resources to get me through the course successfully.  (One of the universities on my shortlist is currently researching how their disabled students cope, although that wasn't a deciding factor in my choice.)  But from what I'm hearing on the grapevine, these services can be patchy.  I've heard some really encouraging stories, but also some that make you think twice - like the Autistic person who was told by a student services psychologist that their disability was "not a communication issue".

Then there's the issue of documenting this Aspergers business in the first place.  I don't know if you're supposed to get a certificate or some paperwork when you're diagnosed, but I didn't.  When I've had to 'prove' my diagnosis (when I took part in some research, for instance) I've had to get a letter from the place where I was diagnosed written specifically to cover that situation.  I don't have anything that says "yo, this person has Aspergers".  It'd be handy sometimes.

Thanks to my several moves in the last few years, the place I was diagnosed is in another city.  Getting paperwork is going to involve either travelling for an appointment (assuming I can get one, afford it, and fit it in around my current job) or finding someone else to sign off on my diagnosis.  I doubt I'll be able to do either in the next ten weeks.

On the other hand, would life be easier if I just kept it to myself?

I pass a lot better than I used to.  My self-awareness, social skills and self-esteem have come a long way in the last couple of years.  I've learned to manage my energy and deal with sensory irritants more effectively, and am starting to get a handle on the body awareness and executive function stuff.  The things I really struggle with - free-form unstructured alcohol-based socialising for instance, which sounds trivial but is a major means of networking for both pleasure and business in these parts - aren't things that a uni or workplace assistance program are going to be able to help me with anyway.

So, if I can handle it on my own and don't need help, maybe by outing myself I run the risk of calling attention to differences that would otherwise go unnoticed, and creating more problems for myself than if I was just the shy, odd one.

(This raises a vexed question: if Aspergers is defined as a clinical impairment in X, Y and Z, and through hard work, luck or good therapy you manage to chip away at X, Y and Z to the point you no longer have a clinical impairment... do you still have Aspergers?  That's a complicated point and one for another time.  But don't think it's not on my mind.)

Starting at the bottom of the ladder in a new career, especially as an older graduate, I need to present myself as eminently employable.  I don't want to risk that by appearing to come with provisos - especially if I don't need to.  If there's nothing to be gained from disclosing, and I'm not entirely sure there will be, maybe I should just be quiet about it.  Of course the awareness and advocacy issues are still reasons to disclose, but my first priority needs to be earning a living.  To drag Maslow into it, I need to make sure I can put a roof over my head and food on the table before I can worry about the more complex issues of self-actualisation.

This, however, is based on the theory that I will be able to fly under the radar and cope as an undisclosed Aspie.  Maybe I will.  Maybe I won't.  I won't know until I start.  I guess I can always come out later if it all starts hitting the fan, but once out in my new setting I can't go back in.

In the meantime, it's giving me plenty to think about.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Overthinking things

I overthink things.

This evening I spent a solid couple of minutes standing frozen as I tried to figure out which of two near-identical cups of tea to give to Mum, and which to keep for myself.  In the end, I swapped the cups back and forth four times - and I only stopped because I gave up, rather than because I was happy with my decision.

The actual cups involved weren't this fancy
Here's how this particular thought process worked:

1.  One of these cups is slightly smaller than the other.  It'd be polite to give Mum the larger one.

2.  But the larger one is the cup I usually use.

3.  Mum chose these cups, therefore she chose the smaller cup for herself.

4.  Does Mum know the bigger cup is mine?  Or am I the only one keeping track of whose cup is whose?  I seem to be the only one in the family who remembers or cares which of the different-coloured-but-matching-shaped mugs are supposed to belong to who.

5.  But if Mum does remember, that means she wants the smaller cup.

6.  But if she doesn't remember, it's rude to take the larger one for myself.

7.  Why would someone want less tea?  If I hadn't lost* my gigantic Regretsy Weasel mug that holds something ridiculous like 700ml, I'd use it for every single cuppa ever.

8.  This is Mum, who seems to be one step from breatharianism - seriously, that woman could go mustering for a week on nothing more than a packet of Cruskits and an avocado - so maybe she does want less tea.

And it was at this point that I gave up, because I was infuriated with myself for turning something so simple into such a complex exercise and because Mum had appeared with the milk and I didn't want to look ridiculous in front of her by continuing to swap the cups around.

This is a thing with me.  I overthink things and analyse them to shreds, particularly things to do with fairness, politeness, justice, and imposing on other people.  I wonder if it's a rut I've dug for myself to compensate for social skills or common sense that don't always work as well as they should in real-time: I can't instinct my way out of this, so I'll logic my way out of it.  Except it doesn't - it just slows me down further, and sometimes I stall completely like I did this evening because I just didn't have enough information to logic with.

And for the record: yes, Mum did want the smaller cup.

* I did three big cross-country moves in three years, and the last one in particular was awful because the removalists were dicks.  About 90% everything I've ever owned has been lost, sold, misplaced, broken or given away.  Except, strangely, one plate that I still have even though I sold the dinner set it belongs to.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Can Aspies drive?

Can people on the spectrum drive?  Not just anecdotes about individuals who can or can't, what about some meaningful data about how we cope behind the wheel?

Professor Torbjorn Falkmer is a Senior Research Fellow at Curtin University's School of Occupational Therapy and Social Work.  He's behind a study looking specifically at autism and driving.

"We are going to ask parents, driving instructors and persons with ASD about their viewpoint on driving and autism experiences," Professor Falkmer explains.  That will be followed by some cognitive testing relevant to driving, and then participants get behind the wheel: first in a driving simulator, and then for real on a pre-defined route around the Curtin campus in Perth. 

All the while, researchers will be collecting data on how their subjects perform, how they handle the hazards, distractions and multi-tasking that come with driving, and how they read and respond to social cues while motoring.  Part of that involves collecting eye tracking data, so researchers can monitor what their participants were looking at, and for how long.

Getting your drivers licence is a rite of passage, especially in country areas where your opportunities and movements are severely restricted if you can't drive yourself around.  Prof. Falkmer says this research could help train and assess the next generation of neurodiverse drivers.

"We would hope that insight into and establishing the evidence for the driving performance in adolescent drivers with ASD may assist in development of more reliable and accurate tools for assessing drivers with autism," he says.

"The study may also help to inform clinicians about appropriate training strategies to improve drivers’ behaviours and to enable safe driving.

"By exploring and understanding facilitators and barriers of driving ability in individuals with autism we can hopefully enhance their strengths and work on improving areas of concerns to facilitate the independence by enabling more persons with autism to manage to get their driving licence."

Driving is a very visual exercise: a big part of it is keeping an eye on the road and responding to what you see.  And being a 'visual thinker' is often talked about as being an autistic trait.  (Temple Grandin, for instance, has written eloquently and at length about how she thinks and understands the world visually.)  So, visual thinkers taking on a visual task should be a recipe for success, right?

Not necessarily. 

There's a difference between thinking visually and being able to handle a highly visual task in real time.  As for whether people on the spectrum tend to be better at picking up and processing visual information, the short answer is we just don't know.

"If there is a general superiority in people with autism when it comes to attending to visually presented details is still not conclusively proven," Professor Falkmer says.  "Some studies report that such superiority exists, some have not been able to find it.  So maybe a good summary is to say that we still do not know enough about visual perception in autism."

Many thanks to Professor Torbjorn Falkmer and Susanna Wolz from Curtin University for their time and help.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Four Aspie-friendly online games and one that's creepy as hell

Or you could play with these, I guess
So, you're bored.  You have some time to kill, or you're procrastinating, or you just have a free evening and would like to do something other than browsing YouTube or refreshing Facebook for the umpteenth time in case someone's posted something interesting.

Here are some options.  They're games that might keep you occupied for a few minutes or a few hours, and most involve some strategy, general knowledge or pattern matching rather than shooting at things or madly stabbing at a little yellow bird that doesn't understand how its wings work.

I tested a lot of games (it was a hard job, but someone had to do it).  I looked at how straightforward they are to play and the quality of the instructions, potential sensory annoyances like animation and sound effects, and stuck to things that are free to play, that don't bug you about sharing on social media, and that don't expect you to recruit other players.  I also stuck to casual games - nothing that things that requires registration or downloads, and no complex world-building and roleplay games that require ongoing commitment.  No doubt there are loads I've missed (points to comments box) but here, in no particular order, are some I'd recommend:


An oldie but still awesome, FreeRice is an endless quiz where the advertisers donate money to the World Food Program for every correct answer.  The default setting is vocabulary, which is great for word nerds and the hyperlexic, but click "subjects" and you'll find they offer all sorts of topics from famous paintings to maths, chemical symbols and flags of the world.


I'm rubbish at Sudoku, but then numbers and I have always had an uneasy relationship.  There are lot of options for playing Sudoku online, but this was the best of the ones I tested because the interface is simple, you can set your difficulty level and the size of your board, you can check your answers, and while there's an option to play against the clock it doesn't time you by default.


You've probably heard of this one - it's new (although based on an older game, Threes), popular and really quite addictive.  It's harder to explain how it works than it is to play it, but if you tap around with the arrow keys for a while you'll figure it out.  It's numbers-based, but more about strategy and spatial logic than maths.


This one is for geography fans.  It presents you with a Google Streetview image from some random part of the world, and you have to figure out where it is.  If you're lucky there'll be recognisable landmarks or writing on buildings to help you, but sometimes it's going to be a long stretch of dirt road with some scrubby bush on either side.  Making an educated guess (or a wild one) is as much part of the game as clicking around looking for a definite answer.

Special mention for being creepy as hell and kinda triggery:


For Gods' sake don't play Elude if you're already miserable.  It's a weird, spooky game designed to explain depression to people who don't get it, like friends and family members who tell the affected person to just cheer up and get over it already.  It does this through the medium of climbing trees in a forest while singing despondent one-note songs to passing birds.  Occasionally you might break through the leaf canopy to the elusive state of happiness, where you leap from flower to flower until you lose your footing and plummet back to earth.  Reaching out to the birds around you helps you jump higher and get closer to happiness, except then it doesn't and the ground swallows you up.  The game ends on the edge of a bottomless red-lit chasm that looks suspiciously like a portal to hell, which you might be able to escape.  Or you might not.

Having said that, it's very playable in a platformy kind of way.  It stands up to repeated playing, because there are some tricks you can learn, like getting better jump-boosters from the birds so you can climb higher more quickly.  Except when the tentacles appear, because then the birds sod off and leave you to deal with it.

I probably should have just made this a four-point list, shouldn't I?

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Executive function and managing email

Holy crap but my inboxes are out of control right now.

I love email.  It saves me a lot of talking on the phone I'd rather avoid, plus having things in writing lets me process it as and when I can rather than having to keep up with a real time conversation.  (I can't always do that, mostly thanks to sensory processing delays.)  But keeping on top of my email is an ongoing challenge.  Every so often I'll get my inboxes empty and be terribly pleased with myself for a while.  Then I get complacent, and within a few days they're overflowing again with stuff I don't know what to do with or don't want to deal with, and things I could have sorted out in a few minutes but didn't and now feel guilty about.

It's time to break this habit and get these suckers under control once and for all, so I've been reading up on email management.  There are eleventy billion blog posts about this, mostly aimed at people who wear suits and work in offices, but most boil down to the same general ideas.  Now it's a matter of making those ideas work with my ropey executive function.  For instance, having a separate folder for emails to deal with later won't work for me.  I'm probably going to forget to check that folder - if I can't see it, it doesn't exist - so nothing in there is ever going to be dealt with.  Folders are great for storing things I need to keep but am unlikely to have to deal with again, like receipts for stuff bought online, but not a good idea for work in progress.

So, here's the plan.  These are email management tips distilled from about a dozen sources (I'll put a full list of references at the end) tweaked and refined to hopefully make them work better in the face of shaky executive function.

Limit the amount of stuff coming in:  Minimising the amount of crap you have to deal with is better than having an efficient method of dealing with it.  Report spam, so anything else from the same spammy sender goes straight to your spam trap.  If you're getting updates about stuff you're not interested in - like daily emails from that obscure news site you registered with so you could leave one comment and then never went back - unsubscribe from them, or if you can't unsubscribe mark them as spam.  (If they don't give you an easy means of subscribing, they are spam, even if the sender is legit.)  If your inbox is filling up with mailing lists or blogs you follow by email, consider following them by RSS instead.

Create rules to direct your traffic: If RSS isn't your thing, you could also create a rule (also called filters by some systems) that sorts your email newsletters and blog updates into their own folders.  (Assuming folders would work for you.)  You can use a rule to identify any email from a particular sender or domain or containing certain keywords, and send it straight to a folder other than your inbox. 

Have a second email for online forms and signups: If you need to register with a website or app you're probably only going to use once, or you have some other online thing demanding a means of contacting you, it can be handy to have a second email to use.  This is one you don't necessarily check regularly or use with your real name, but does exist and you can check if you have to.  It means the random Grubby McGrubbersons of the internet might have your email, but not the one you use for communicating with real people.

Turn off notifications: If your phone or computer makes a noise, pops up a box or does a little dance every time you get a new email, switch that feature off.  (If you can't figure out how, and some of them are quite well hidden, googling for "turn off new email notification <program you use>" will probably help you find out.)  Those constant popups and pings can be really distracting.  They also encourage you to read and deal with every email as it comes in, which in most situations is a pretty inefficient way to work.  That brings us to...

Have set times to check and deal with email: Try scheduling a set time to check and handle mail, which could be anything from once every three days to four times daily depending on what you do and how you use it.  Sometimes this won't work - in some jobs, responding to back-and-forth emails is pretty much what you do all day.  But if you can set aside an hour or two specifically to getting it sorted out and dealing with the stuff that's been building up, it might give you the motivation to get on top of it.

Deal with it straight away if you can: I could win Olympic gold for Australia in procrastination, so I tend to read emails, and then promptly do nothing about them.  Sometimes it's because I don't know how to respond, sometimes it's because I don't want to deal with whatever the issue is, sometimes I genuinely don't have time.  But if you can deal with it the first time you read it, it saves you having to come back and read it again later.  If you can't deal with it - say it's someone asking for help you just can't provide - reply and say so.  You might be able to suggest someone else who could help, in which case you could suggest them or even cc them in on your reply. 

Figure out a folder strategy that works for you:  There are loads of ways you could use folders - by topic, by person, by date, by what you have to do with that information - and what works for someone else won't necessarily work for you.  For instance, having a 'to be actioned' folder isn't going to work for me, because it's going to sit unobtrusively to one side of my inbox where I probably won't see it, and will forget it and everything in it exists.  But I find folders very useful for archiving things I might so I can find them quickly if and when I do.  For instance, I have one for business expenses where I keep receipts for things like stationery and website costs so I can find them easily at tax time.

Keep a dirt file: If you get unwanted attention from creepers or bullies, file them away somewhere so you have proof they happened should you ever need to file a complaint or escalate things further.  But put them in a folder where you don't have to see them everyday while you're getting on with your life.  If you think you might be snooped on, perhaps give it an innocuous name like "memos" or "meeting notes" just to be on the safe side. 

Keep stock replies: If you get the same question repeatedly, save your response somewhere handy and paste it in or attach it to every new enquiry to save time.  We did this at a radio station where I used to work, where we had a regular stream of "how do I send you a community notice?" emails.  Your email system might have a "canned response" feature that lets you do this easily.

There are also some things we can do to help other people manage their emails, because they're probably struggling just as much as we are.

Use sensible subject fields: Let the person on the other end know what your email's about.  If you're just forwarding funny videos amongst your friends, 'lol' or 'I'll just leave this here' might be fine, but if it's something more serious then "Neurodiversity journal article for May edition" is probably more helpful than "article".

Use a separate email for each issue: If you have to email the same person about a heap of different things, it might be helpful to send separate emails.  For instance, in the job I have now I might have to send the boss some art proofs, an update on an ongoing project, and then ask about some policy point.  It's worth sending three emails, each with their own subject line and dealing with one specific thing.  Otherwise, you might get a reply that covers the first point but not the others, so you have to waste time (yours and theirs) chasing up the other answers.  Also, it lets the other person file their emails by their system - maybe they've got separate folders for art proofs, that project, and policy stuff. 

Be specific: This is a really hard one for me, because I worry about coming across as bossy.  But if you specify exactly what information or action you need from the person you're emailing, and by when, you're saving them time and effort working out what to do next.

Wish me luck.

Resources used to compile this list:
Mind Tools: Managing email effectively
The Art of Manliness: Slay the email monster!
Runbox: How to manage your inbox
Asian Efficiency: The simple guide to managing your email more efficiently
LinkedIn: Seven ways to manage your email so it doesn't manage you
The Next Web: Five ways to reach an empty email inbox in 2014
Forbes: How to conquer your email inbox
Everything Email: six tips for managing your emails
About: Email management tips for improved productivity

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Skinny pretty girls being quirky in socially acceptable ways

I love this comic.  I mean, I love xkcd in general, but I love this comic in particular.  But I've shared it with various people over the years, sometimes guys who are acting like the guy in the comic in the hope that they'll recognise themselves and snap out of it, and I usually just get a baffled 'huh?' sort of response.

But this "please stick to the following endorsed forms of quirkery" idea is very much a thing.  It also has another aspect, one that would be hard to illustrate in xkcd's faceless stick figure style: kooky and quirky is for pretty, skinny, able girls.

The further you are from ideal, the more you have to toe the line: if you're attractive and slim, you can act and dress and present yourself in ways you can't if you're fat or have an asymmetrical face.  And if you have a disability, especially something like Aspergers that gives people ammunition to think you're weird, you're expected to make a special effort to fit in and be normal.  A cute quirk becomes a character flaw becomes a clinical symptom depending on who has it.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

How can we make uni easier for students with disability?

The University of Southern Queensland is  figuring out how to help disabled uni students complete their studies successfully.

An interdisciplinary team - there are boffins involved from the health, psychology, and education fields - has won a grant for a pilot study working with 30 USQ students with disability.

Around the country uni enrolments are rising, but project leader Dr Rahul Ganguly says students with disability aren't necessarily keeping up - they might leave education sooner than their non-disabled peers, or not do as well academically.

It's a field that hasn't had a lot of research before, and what attention it has had has tended to look at the facilities available or what the faculty thinks rather than talking to the actual students.

This project aims to change that: they'll follow their 30 students for a year, through surveys and interviews.  They'll not only be looking at what uni policies and services are helping, but also recognising the students' own resilience and skills that are helping them get through.

More info here

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Building a business from Awesome Autism

via Pixabay
Autism has been Theresa Homziak's passion since her son was diagnosed. Being based in Rockhampton, getting the resources and products her family needs hasn't always been easy. But Theresa's found an opportunity in that isolation and set up business for herself, as Awesome Autism Resources.

Theresa says there is an unmet need in central Queensland for autism-related products and resources. “Not only have I been on the other end of this, but have been commended for filling this need in town,” she says. “For families just starting their journey, it is so daunting.”

Theresa's stock includes protective iPad cases, chew and fidget toys and earmuffs. She's also testing and adding new lines all the time – like silicone finger toothbrushes, the next product in the works. “I spend a lot of time researching products and finding the best suppliers so I can keep the costs down and still provide awesome products.”

At this stage, most of Awesome Autism Resources' stock is aimed at children – although some adults on the spectrum find fidgets toys just as valuable as kids do, and a good sturdy case for a delicate electronic device is a sensible investment for all ages. As business builds up, Theresa plans to stock more products aimed at adults, as well as branching out into books and visuals.

 Theresa also offers a unique advisory service: if you're struggling with an issue and don't know how to fix it or what would help, she'll do the research and liaise with specialists to find you an answer. Then, she'll come back to you with a list of resources and tools that could help, with prices that include a small commission for her legwork and research.

For more information:

Awesome Autism Resources website

Awesome Autism Resources on Facebook

Monday, 7 April 2014

Where do the children play?

The question of whether kids these days are too coddled, and their sport and games too sanitised and free from competition, is rattling around the public consciousness once again. 

Mia Freedman has decided that "we're accidentally raising a generation of soft kids" by not keeping score and using league tables in under-tens AFL.  Meanwhile on The Atlantic Hanna Rosin is exploring a Welsh playground where kids are free to build stuff out of old bits and pieces lying around, light fires, throw tyres into creeks, and generally do their own thing.

The general argument is that losing games and skinning knees builds character, that learning to handle failure graciously is important and success means more when you have to work for it, rather than being over-helped by hovering grown-ups. 

But where are the disabled kids in this competitive, free-range environment?

by Gaertringen on Pixabay
When I was a kid, school sport was massively competitive.  After about grade two, I can't remember any organised sport that wasn't either a competition, or practice for a competition.  And when there's something at stake, whether it's glory or a spot on the inter-school team, nobody wants you on their team if you're going to hold them back.  While some Aspies are gifted athletically, others are like me: rough motor skills, poor body awareness, low muscle tone and shaky spatial reckoning.  Not the greatest asset on a competitive sporting team.  Your team mates will quickly realise how many balls you drop and catches you miss, and because this is a competition they'll resent your presence.  And they'll let you know.

As far as disorganised sport goes, the friendly games and messing around that happens out of school hours, I was never included in that for two reasons.  Firstly, I grew up on a farm; not far enough out of town to be properly rural with horses and swimming holes and farm stuff to do, but far enough that my parents had to drive me to and from school and there were no other kids within walking distance of home.  And secondly, nobody wanted to play with me.  Most Aspie kids experience bullying and ostracism, and I was no different.

I had stuff thrown at me from time to time.  Watermelon, usually, or wadded up bits of paper.  It didn't happen often.  But it happened enough times that I doubt I would have felt safe had my playmates had access to not just fruit and office supplies but fire and pieces of wood and metal.  Maybe having access to a more hands-on, stimulating environment would have inspired the other kids find something better to do.  Or maybe it would have just given them heavier, pointier, more-on-fire stuff to throw.  I don't know.

If kids can count, they'll keep score themselves.  And they do need places to mess around and have adventures outside the clean and ordered environment of school. But I think we need to find some middle ground.  We can't remove competition altogether but it shouldn't be the only reason sport exists.  And it must be possible to create an environment that's fun and interesting, but still safe and welcoming for everyone.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

The tale of the telephone

This post could also be called "Life with executive function issues is hard enough already: don't make it any harder than it needs to be", but that just looks ridiculous as a headline.

If you struggle with executive function, you deserve every scrap of help you can get in the name of getting things done.

But sometimes, families or workplaces come up with systems that are way more complicated than they need to be, or are poorly defined, or they don't even have a system.  And then they wonder why the Aspie in their midst is floundering around, drowning in a sea of executive function fails.

When I was a kid, I could NOT manage to take a phone message.  I was undiagnosed at this point, and an apparently bright child, yet my inability to master this particular task caused all sorts of chaos and discord.

But looking back, the reason I couldn't take a phone message is obvious: we didn't have a system.

The signal on this thing is rubbish
For a start, there wasn't always a pen on the phone table, or it would have no ink or it'd be a broken pencil with no sharpener.  There wasn't always paper, either.  So taking a message meant putting the phone down (and not accidentally hanging up on the person on the other end!) and going to find the tools for the job.

Then you'd come back and take the message.  And then you'd... do what with it, exactly?  There was no set protocol for what to do with a message once it was taken, so it'd either stay on the phone table and not be seen, or it'd be put on the kitchen table and blow away or be bundled up with a heap of other papers and lost, or it'd be stuck to the fridge with a magnet where it'd blend in with the thousand other things already stuck there.

Small wonder I never got it right.

Here's how I'd handle that situation if it were happening today:

1.  Have pens by the phone at all times.  Multiple pens, so if one runs out there are others.  If they tend to disappear, tie the damn things to the table leg with a long string.

2.  Have paper too - say an A5 pad, where each page is large enough to hold one and only one message.  Bear in mind that ropey motor skills sometimes means large writing, so dainty little notebooks the size of a matchbox may not suffice.

3.  Messages comprise multiple pieces of information.  At the very least, you need the caller's name, their number, and who they were calling for.  Ideally, you also want to know when they rang, why, and when's a good time to call them back.  That's a lot to remember.  If that's a challenge, you could print up some sheets with spaces for that information, to prompt the message taker to put down everything that's needed.  If you'd like something fancy, here's a printable one.

If missing out digits from phone numbers is an issue - which it can be if your motor skills are slow and your brain gets ahead of your hand - you might need individual spaces for each number to make sure the whole thing gets taken down.  Like this: 0 _  _ _ _ _  _ _ _ _

3.  Decide exactly what's to be done with messages.  Maybe stick them to the fridge - but if the fridge is at the other end of the house, remembering to put it there will be another whole challenge.  Maybe get a letter spike and display it somewhere prominent.  Maybe install a corkboard over the phone table and pin them on there.  Maybe glue some clothespegs to the wall.  Whatever it takes.

4.  USE THE SYSTEM.  The best system in the world is useless if it's not implemented.  Make sure everyone knows how it's supposed to work and is able to use it.  Make sure old messages are cleared from the fridge/spike/board as soon as they're acted upon, so it's not cluttered up with meaningless old crap.

It might feel odd at first.  There will probably be a sense of "but normal people don't have to have everything laid out for them like this."  That's cobblers.  You have no idea what "normal" people have to do to get through their day.  Buying a packet of pens, printing out some "while you were out" sheets and acquiring a letter spike (because seriously, how cool is a letter spike?) is small beans, if it helps you get the job done.