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list1My world is full of lists. I have them on my walls and whiteboards at work, on papers at home and scattered through synchronized computer systems, including my mobile phone, computer, iPad, print outs.  My lists are everywhere.

Lists serve many functions. They help us to plan and prioritize our tasks and our day. They help us to allocate time, resources, responsibility and dependencies to tasks and they help us to build a sense of achievement. At a baser level, many people on the autism spectrum derive enormous pleasure from lists and categorization.

The Pleasure of Lists
This probably seems strange to the neurotypical mind but lists have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. In fact, lists were a huge part of my daily life long before words and writing.

I’m sure that most parents of children with autism have witnessed their child lining up their toys time and time again, often in the same pattern but sometimes differently too. Probably it hasn’t occurred to you that this behavior is simply list-making and categorization without words, but it is. I remember doing this as a child and lining my cars up in order of favorites or colors.  I also remember categorizing cars, buses and trucks into different rows.

That’s right. Children on the autism spectrum are born list-makers and it feels good. List-making is a form of stimming and for us, it scratches an itch.

Even now, I keep constant non-work, lists simply for pleasure. For example, I have all of my DVD collection cataloged in extreme detail in a replicated database which I get great pleasure from updating. My database includes information on the various aspect ratios of the films and their language and subtitle streams even though I only speak English. In fact, given that I have nearly 500 films in this list that I have yet to watch, it’s a fair point that the list itself is probably more important to me than actual items themselves.

The Value of Using Lists
I’ve always used lists in my life for my own collections and I can still recall using an old typewriter in my single-digit years to build a catalog of all of my books. Strangely enough, I never thought about using lists  in school or university. I didn’t realize how helpful they would be. In my working life, I’ve struggled for years to find ways to organize myself and after twenty years of failed calendars and “organizers” it has come down, once again, to simple lists.

Funnily enough, I noticed recently that my wife has been using lists–not for herself but for the things she needs me to do. It turns out that after all these years of marriage, she has also found that lists are the most effective tool to engage me on.

I only wish that I’d started using lists to manage my tasks much sooner, for example, in my school days.

This brings me neatly to the point of the article. If you notice that your kids with isms are using list-like behavior then please teach them the value of using lists for school work, for chores and for everyday life in general. Make lists of the things they need to do to get ready for school and teach them how to check off those items as they complete them. Even if your kids are not currently displaying list-like behaviors but they are having difficulty with organization, lists may be the answer.

This will not only keep your kids on track but it will also help to foster a sense of achievement as they complete everything on their list.

Tools for Lists
In this day and age, technology has made the paper list largely redundant though they are still very effective “on the spot” list makers.  I’ve found that whiteboards work very well for me at work but that I need to have different colored pens in order to properly categorize things in my list. I also need to be able to take my whiteboard down regularly and lay it on a chair or table to write or rewrite my list (so a whiteboard fixed to a wall is not necessarily a great idea).

  • On the computer front, there are a few tools that I have found to be invaluable for list making. The first is a text editor (like Notepad).  Personally, I use Notepad ++ because among other amazing features, it allows me to keep many separate lists on different tabs open at once.  Plus of course, it’s free.
  • On my iPhone, I use PlainText, another free app which allows me to keep multiple lists without worrying about formatting.  It synchronizes via dropbox which means that my lists automatically update across my various computing devices.
  • Finally, there’s the king of the list products: Wunderlist. This is an amazing web-based product which runs on the iPhone and android as well as in browsers. It’s free too. The beauty of Wunderlist is that it allows you to easily tick off things that you have completed. It also has alarms too. Of course, I don’t think that it really matters what product you use provided that you can easily and quickly make a list without being forced into putting dates and categories. 

Whatever works is fine, after all, the list is far more important than the tool.