Autism Technology Fast Facts: Getting Organized

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Tony Gentry, PhD OTR/L
Virginia Commonwealth University
Department of Occupational Therapy

Teachers can help students organize their time by implementing calendars, day planners and/or scheduling software in their daily routines. But it can be just as important to help them organize their living and working environments. Clutter hides wallets and car keys, leads to distractions that break a student's chain of thought, wastes a lot of time, and leaves students feeling confused, lost and overwhelmed. After assessing a student's immediate and long-term goals, work with him/her to select the optimal site to begin an environmental organization project. Then go to that site with the student and set to work.

Suggestions for organization sites include:

  • Pocketbooks and backpacks
  • Front door entryway
  • Kitchen cabinets
  • Clothes closet and dressers
  • Bathroom cabinets
  • Table or desk where homework is done
  • Bookshelves

Organization guru Julie Morgenstern, in her book Organizing from the Inside Out, recommends a five-stage approach to environmental organization, which goes by the acronym SPACE.

  1. Sort: Pull out everything there. Ask, "Is this item important to me? Do I use it often enough to keep it?" Put similar items together.
  2. Purge: Place each item into one of four boxes labeled: (a) throw away, (b) give away, (c) sell, (d) put somewhere else, or (e) store.
  3. Assign a Home: For the items that you have chosen to keep, follow these three rules: (a) logical sequencing, (b) accessibility, and (c) safety.
  4. Containerize: Place items in easily accessible containers of the right size, shape and manageability. Then store the ones you use less frequently behind those you use more frequently.
  5. Equalize: After two weeks, reevaluate whether the organization system is working. Make changes as needed. Take time to put things back at the end of the day. Follow this rule: Keep it simple!

Completing any stage of the SPACE approach can take hours, especially when working with a student who has cognitive-behavioral challenges and who may have attention difficulties. If necessary, enlist a family member to help with the heavy work and ask the student to handle the decisions about what to keep and let go and where to put items used most frequently. This process can be a wonderful cognitive rehabilitation exercise, too, giving you an opportunity to see how the student behaves during a complex home-based task. This also provides a chance to work on developing cognitive survival strategies with the student in her/his home setting. After successfully organizing one site, consider working on another. Enlist family caregivers to help. Home and workplace organization can do wonders to reduce stress and free up time once spent searching for things or making space to work.

Organization Resource List

Wherever cognitive processing is compromised, environmental organization and task management strategies can go a long way towards reducing functional deficits. Here are some terrific sources for helping you design environmental and task organization interventions for your students.


Eisenberg, R., & Kelly, K. (1994). Organize your Office: Simple Routines for Managing your Workplace. New York: Hyperion.

Kanarek, L. (1998). Organizing Your Home Office for Success: Expert Strategies that Can Work for You. New York: Plume.

Zeller, D. (2008). Successful Time Management for Dummies. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Morgenstern, J. (2004). Organizing from the Inside Out: The Foolproof System for Organizing your Home, your Office and your Life. New York: Holt.

Winston, S. (2000). Getting Organized: The Easy Way to Put Your Life in Order. New York: Warner.


Apple App

HomeRoutines (in the Apple App Store)

Information for this "Autism Technology Brief" is from Virginia Commonwealth University's Autism Center for Excellence (VCU-ACE), which is funded by the Virginia State Department of Education (Grant # 881-61172-H027A100107). The Contributor for this issue is Tony Gentry, PhD OTR/L Virginia Commonwealth University's Department of Occupational Therapy. Please contact Dr. Gentry at

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