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Laundry day. We’d let the dirty clothes stack up for too long, with my husband and I on alternating travel schedules. When we finally got it all done, it soared in a mountain over our ping-pong table, aka “world’s most awesome laundry-folding service.”. Folding was an impossibility due to the volume. So I assigned a sorting task to my youngest two kids, both teenagers. My daughter is neuro-typical. My son, “Clark Kent the WonderKid,” has ADHD and Asperger’s.

After a lot of moaning and groaning, off both kids – excuse me, young people, as they prefer to be called these days — went to pull their clothes out of the pile. Suz snuck away once to watch some show about sparkly teenage vampires, and I had to scold her once. Within half an hour, though, she had transferred her pile to the floor of her room. Not optimal, but she had reduced the volume on the ping-pong table, and from my inspection of the remaining laundry I could see she did a decent job.

Attempts to Sort the Laundry
And then there was Clark Kent.

He wandered into the game room, he meandered back out. I sent him in again, he repeated the process. Lather, rinse, repeat. Times ten. He sat back down at his laptop.

“Did you finish?” I asked.

“Huh?” he replied.

“Did you separate all your laundry and get it up to your room?”

“Uh, yeah.” He got up and returned to the game room and the laundry.

Apparently, “yeah” meant “not so much.”

Finally, he pronounced himself done. I have 16 years experience with this young man, so I went to check. The mountain of laundry remained intact. Just to verify, I sorted out the other family members. The remaining pile of my son’s items was immense. I showed it to him, and he cheerfully agreed that he had “missed a few.”

Task Overload!
I was not upset, however, because, really, it was my own fault. I was busy, and I had assigned a task that bombarded signals at Clark’s central nervous system until a siren went off on his control panel accompanied by a flashing red light and “overload, system crash imminent” message.

Should I expect his help with the laundry? Yes, I think at his age that is a reasonable expectation.

What Went Wrong
But I have to arm him for success. Folding he can do, albeit sloppy and boy-like. Putting up he can do, as long as there are no shiny distractions between the ping-pong table and his room. But sorting? Sorting from amongst a pile of 200 pieces of clothing in a multitude of colors, of all different shapes and sizes, and in every imaginable texture? That was too much stimuli. Sorting was the task I should have known better than to expect he could handle without assistance or modification.

So What Could I Have Done Differently to Help Him?

  1. Assign him the task when he had no distractions – no homework, girlfriend, dinner preparations, dogs running through the house, his sister’s TV show blaring.
  2. Supervise the task and redirect him when he faltered – I also have some success with asking his girlfriend or sister to work alongside him; the presence of another person to redirect him when he strays off path really helps.
  3. Break the task into smaller chunks – pull a smaller pile aside and have him tackle it, then, when he had completed that, pull aside another smaller pile and repeat the process until we finished.
  4. Modify the task – instead of sorting, I could have asked him to fold his pile and my pile.

Reward or Punishment Have not Worked
In other words, I could have reduced the stimuli to his system, and I could have provided a stabilizing influence. My experience with my son does not suggest that reward or punishment have any impact, if I don’t set up the task for success from the beginning. For the appropriate task with a manageable stimulus load, a very immediate and highly desired reward works, like letting him go pick up Chick-Fila for dinner as soon as he is done. No matter how immediate, punishment/consequences does not seem to impact his rate of success; he just doesn’t process the possibility of future unpleasantness into his present-orientation, his “four seconds left to live” worldview.

All Kinds of Minds
It takes all kinds of minds. Because I know how my son’s mind works, if I want him to succeed, it takes me using mine to accommodate his. And it would really ease my mind if that stack of laundry found its way off my ping-pong table, so it’s up to me to get smart and minimize the stimuli, if I’d like to see it done.