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.