Switching tasks, be it at home, work, or school, is a bridge that many autistic people struggle to cross. Getting hyper-focused on a game, show, project, or conversation topic is a common autistic experience. Whether the task is related to a special interest or not, we the autistic people find ourselves repeating the task. While this repetition is challenging to overcome, it’s important to note that the repetition is often rewarding and enjoyable for many of us.
There’s a word for this repetitive experience: perseveration. In short, perseveration is when we repeat the same gesture, words, or actions on a loop. Perseveration is not autism-exclusive; it occurs quite frequently for many neurodivergents. This neurological phenomenon can manifest in many ways, including stimming, echolalia, and struggles with switching tasks.
Oftentimes, it’s not that we don’t want to move on from one task to the other. We simply don’t know how to make that leap. Even more, our brains are wired differently from NT people. As a result, the methods for task switching that are taught in schools don’t usually work as well for autistic people. So let’s break down a few strategies for task switching:
1) Identify possible underlying causes. While perseveration occurs on happy and difficult days, it may also be a sign of burnout, sensory overload, and anxiety. If this is the case, it’s best to focus less on switching tasks and more on coping skills for sensory regulation, rest, and mental health.
2) Tackle task completion. Whenever possible, set an end time or end goal for tasks. This can be as simple as declaring aloud that I will stop playing a phone game after ten rounds. Or, I can write a note that I’ll move on from a project after I’ve completed XYZ piece, i.e. finished writing an outline, edited five photos, solved half the math problems, etc.
3) Assign an accountability partner. This is a lesser known hack for task initiation. On days when perseveration is a real barrier to initiating a task, I call in the cavalry. A friend will gently remind me, “It’s time to get started.” Having a kind and personal reminder can make all the difference.