By: Waverly Ann Harris

We are fortunate to live in a world where we get to interact with many different people. Everyone has their own perspective, culture, sense of humor, and context for how they understand the world. This diversity is wonderful, yet we have not quite adapted our expectations from thinking that everyone should follow the same social norms, even though we say we value diversity. Have you ever been in a group where someone makes a joke and everyone laughs, except you? You are standing there trying to figure out why others find it funny. Individuals who struggle with Executive Function, may experience this more often than others. 


If you are helping your family member with an intellectual or developmental disability (IDD) become more independent at home, it will be helpful to remember the importance of literal explanations and directions. For some, it may be helpful to have the explanation delivered so literally that it is depicted in a visual story.



Individuals with IDD have an amazing ability to be in the present and to take advantage of what is right in front of them. Everyone could benefit from this trait. However, they often struggle to understand abstract concepts. This includes sarcasm, theories, and concepts that they have never experienced. It also includes words or phrases that we have come to know through slang or common speech but that have no literal meaning. For example, someone may say, “Don’t forget to put your clothes up,” with the intent that the other person will take their clothes from the dryer, fold/hang them, and then place them in the drawer or closet. They then get frustrated when the clothes are still in the dryer or somewhere unintended. But the person with IDD may not have understood what “put up your clothes” meant. 


It takes practice to think through each step of a common task. Read a recipe: what would happen if you followed that recipe’s directions exactly literally? Most recipes expect that you will use context clues and experience to complete the recipe. To help someone with IDD to be more independent, you will need to create directions that are very literal and don’t make any assumptions.

You can find lots of examples of task lists online. Search task lists for cleaning or task lists for laundry and you will find examples. If you want to use pictures, you may need to adjust it with age-appropriate images (be sure to always use age-appropriate images). 


As a caregiver, it is important to find tools that will be easy for you to sustain. The hard work you put into creating a routine and a task list will be lost if you can’t sustain the consistency. Think about using Google CalendarOutlookAsana, Microsoft To DoTrello, or any other program that will allow you to sync programs and easily share information if the person you are supporting will use their phone. You can add photos and images in these programs and save lists to use over and over again. Otherwise, a white board, simple laminated sheets, a notebook, or index cards are easy to obtain and use. Look for iOS applications as well. 

Visual storytelling is beneficial for everyone. Instagram is an example of how popular visual storytelling is to our society. For some individuals, having photos or visual examples map out a process or clarify what is to be expected is necessary for them to understand. Visuals will help a person who struggles to understand abstract concepts; it makes an abstract concept something to see, and shows it in a more literal way, removing some of the guesswork and unknowns. 


You can build a visual board alongside the person you are supporting. They can help choose photos or visuals. You can take pictures of them doing tasks. They can choose their favorite character or hero to do the tasks. It can be a fun project to do together.  


See examples below: