This post is probably for the most niche of niches, but I decided that there are probably more people out there living similar lives than we think, so if you have an autistic toddler and are working from home: this post is for you! Over the past month, I’ve had to start working from home and have found a few tips and tricks along the way to keep things going smoothly for both my work and my kids, specifically my son, Oliver, who requires more individual needs met than my daughter on a day to day basis, as he is nonverbal autistic.
Set up your home for safe success.
Since we live in a 150 year-old victorian, our house has a lot of rooms interconnected. We use retractable baby gates to section off our house. We have 8 retractable baby gates in our house and one room with a door, all of this on the first floor only, which is where we spend the primary part of our day. We have been using these specific baby gates since we purchased our home in October, and only once have we had to buy a replacement part (and it was because the gate was not locked successfully to begin with before Oliver broke it).
This allows me to successfully continue to work in a room without worrying that Oliver has moved on to another part of the house which might be unsafe at the time (near the stairwells, or in a room that might not be Ollie-proof at the moment). Oliver enjoys moving around, so we need to have multiple safe spaces that he can explore during the day to keep him happy as he gets bored easily.
Find a routine and stick to it.
A lot of autistics prefer routines, but this is especially true for Oliver and Violet. Going to bed at the same time, waking up around the same time, having breakfast (and having the same breakfast) is something that keeps them content. I try to wake up earlier than Oliver to do chores that are harder to do when Oliver is awake (such as laundry, since that is on the second floor, or putting the pool vacuum in outside, or getting the mail) and get myself ready for my work day by getting my coffee, laptop, and iPad charged and set in the dining room with the papers I need for that day. Even though I am not “getting ready for work” in a typical sense of leaving the house, I am still creating a routine to prepare myself for work in the morning.
Find successful distractions that help you work.
Whether you need to make a phone call, focus on writing an e-mail, what have you — find a distraction for your autistic toddler that allows you to focus and keeps him or her busy while you need to do the task. Recently, Oliver has been really into popcorn (like really, really) so whenever I know I have a phone call to make during the day, I prepare myself 15 minutes ahead of time and make a bowl of popcorn and set it in the room that he’ll be in during my phone call (for me, it is typically the sunroom since I could care less about popcorn grease on the old deck floorboards in there). Oliver can be thoroughly entertained with popcorn for roughly 30 minutes — he enjoys the sensation of putting his hands in the bowl, messing up the popcorn, throwing it around, and also eating it. Is it extremely messy? Absolutely! I have to vacuum up every time, but for me, it is worth it because Ollie is incredibly happy and thoroughly invested in this activity and I can have a phone call with a client up to 30 minutes without any interruptions. I try to space out my phone calls throughout the week, as I work in a job that does require long phone conversations as a salesperson.
Another example of a distraction that might be less messy if you are horrified at my first example: Oliver is really, really into the movie Luca right now. If I play the movie too many times during the day, he will get bored, but if I know I have an important e-mail to respond to, or another phone call I cannot avoid taking that I know will be long, then I take that time to put on Luca and he is invested in those seamonsters for the good first half of the movie and is happy as can be watching it!
Make time for your kid.
If you are working from home with a toddler, especially an autistic toddler, you cannot expect to work a full 8 hour day all at once and not participate with your child. That’s not humanly or physically possible, nor is it good for you or your child.
So I try to break up my day with work and time with the kiddos. I end up having to work more odd hours, but for me, that is worth it knowing that they also feel that I am not home ignoring them.
Here is an example of a typical work-from-home day:
6AM to 8AM: First thing in the morning I check my e-mail and try to respond to anything time sensitive right away around 7AM, and then get started on items I need to get completed before Oliver wakes up.
8AM to 9AM: I know that I’m going to be making breakfast, changing pull-ups, giving medicine, etc so I do not expect to get much work done during this time. I work on a Mac, so I try to use the “Stickies” application and during this time I make a running list of the things I need to do, and the things that MUST get done that day.
9AM to 10AM: I try to have Oliver in our main living room and get him a movie he enjoys (like Cars) and some toys he prefers, like train tracks, duplos, etc. I can roughly get about an hour of work in, and this is when I typically respond to my most important emails and double check my work but also know that if he needs me, or I get interrupted, I am not going to lose my place, or worse, get frustrated.
11AM to 12PM: I know Oliver is going to want a snack, or possibly an early lunch, so I focus on trying to offer items for what he might want to eat and let him explore the pantry and kitchen during this time and bring my laptop with me. Sometimes we make peanut butter toast, PBJs, grilled cheeses, or just snack on lots of cheese, chips, etc. if he’s feeling more into that. I try to do the morning dishes during this time and any dishes that we use during this and work on easy tasks for work that take five minute intervals or less to accomplish.
12PM to 1PM: this is typically my “Popcorn” or “Luca” time with Oliver as typically my clients have time during their lunch break to chat.
1PM to 2PM: I work with Oliver on his communication board, or play with him, or this is when we have therapy scheduled in the home. I try to take this time to really be on one one with Oliver and play on his level.
2PM to 3PM: We often switch between rooms, grab snacks, and I typically let Oliver have his time to make decisions on what he wants to do. We might go for a walk around the property, and this is when I typically respond to emails on my phone, or text clients (because a lot of my clients are ok with texting) because he really enjoys being outdoors. If he’s in the mood to watch another movie or play in the living room with his toys, I am able to get more work done, but if not, I know that I’ll have time in the evening to make up for it.
4PM to 5PM: Because Oliver is typically in a great mood at this time of day, and the stores aren’t as crowded as they would be after 5PM when most people get off work, I take this time to run errands. So if I need to drop off dry cleaning, grab groceries (I use the Walmart Pickup app, which I’ll write another post on that eventually and how much of a time saver that is for us as a family), need school supplies, etc. this is when it happens.
5PM to Bedtime: We are typically home and I try to get dinner started for the kids and then get the dinner for Jason and I started after that. That way, we are finished with dinner activities and baths by 7PM, and that gives me another hour or so before bedtime (bedtime in our house is sometime between 8PM and 8:30PM — we know this is much later than most kids, but this is what works for ours) where they play together, listen to music, etc. and wind down before bed and I try to work in-between cleaning up dinner and bath routine.
Once Oliver is in bed, I do a load of laundry and then sit down to work for another two hours until roughly 10:30PM or so. This is ultimately when I do more tedious tasks in my work schedule since I don’t have to stress about making sure Oliver is safely doing an activity, as he is sleeping.
Overall, I try to successfully work six to seven full hours a day — but I also work a few hours each day on the weekends to try and make up for the lack of the “eighth” working hour as I need to be available to my clients as well on the weekends. I know that my working from home is temporary, and once the kids get back into school I’ll have more of a normal work schedule, but this has worked successfully for the past 30 days!
Be kind to yourself, and your kid.
There are weeks where I am super successful at our routine, and then there are also weeks where things fall through the cracks. I think this is true with anyone, even those that work in an office setting. You are going to have your A+ weeks and your B weeks here and there.
Be kind to yourself: you are human and you are raising a human while you work at the same time. There is a consistent amount of trial and error happening in our household to see what works best and what benefits both Oliver and myself during the day. Some days, I work extremely late the night before after getting super into a few projects so instead of a 10:30PM bedtime I’m up until 2AM — that definitely means the next morning I’m not going to be on the laptop working away right at 7AM, and my day may start the same time that Oliver wakes up.
It’s okay to have some flexibility within your day and week as a whole. Sometimes, Oliver is just in a mood, or maybe I’m in a bad mood, and instead of taking that phone call during a Disney movie break, I decide to drive Ollie and Violet to Starbucks and take the phone call outside the car while they snack on banana bread and birthday cake pops. It happens, and it’s okay! It took me a few weeks to realize I am NOT going to have the same routine I did when I was in the office, and I had to adapt to working from home. Sometimes I’m going to have to work from the hood of my car while my kids have a donut break.
Prepare yourself for changes.
Sometimes the kids are going to get sick, and need more attention, and work is going to have to suffer that day and you’ll have to make up for it in the evening. Or sometimes the kids will sleep in, or they will wake up too early — and your day is going to adjust slightly. That’s okay, and preparing yourself ahead of time to acknowledge that things aren’t always going to be as perfect as they need to be will make you less stressed in the long run!
You’ve got this!
If you are struggling with working from home with an autistic toddler, remember that it is all trial and error. Finding a routine that works for you and your kid, and knowing that you will need to spend some of your working hours on your kid, will help you be more successful at your stay at home job. Give yourself realistic expectations each day, and limit your stress!