By James Cleves, Autistic Self Advocate / Founder of CleverVA
As an autistic person, I have found setting and reaching goals quite
challenging throughout my life.
Knowing I want to achieve something is very different from knowing how
to get there. And without guidance, I found making plans very difficult.
The first goal I ever set myself was to get my degree. This was back in
2007 not long after my list of diagnoses was extended to include dyslexia.
Even before then, I was told that I wasn’t able to go to university. So
when another, more severe, learning difficulty was added to the mix, my
dream seemed even more unattainable.
But I have also been blessed (or cursed!) with determination.
Without guidance, I had no idea how to achieve my dream, until one day
someone did see the potential in me and helped me make a plan. The
road was long and hard, with many ups and downs, and my degree took
longer to complete than your average student. But complete it, I jolly well
This taught me the big difference between a dream and a goal. A dream
is something you want or aspire to, but if you make a plan for how to
attain it, it becomes a goal. It starts sounding less like the proverbial pot
of gold at the end of the rainbow, and more like something you might
And I’ve found that an effective way to make a goal - and a plan to reach
it - is to use SMART goals.
A SMART goal is one that is:
So instead of setting yourself a vague target, like “I want to get a
degree”, set a specific target. You probably have a particular course, even
a particular school in mind, so don’t be afraid to vocalise it. Because when
you have a specific result in mind, you can more easily see your progress
and know when you reach the finish line.
Make your goal something that you can track so you can measure your
progress. Because when you can see that you are making progress, no
matter how big or small that is, it’s easier to find the motivation to keep
on working towards that end result.
Choose a goal that you can realistically achieve, while still setting yourself
a challenge. You know your own limits and capabilities. So choose
something that will push you forwards and stretch your abilities, but not
set the bar so high that you get discouraged. Think, too, about what
support or resources you might need to help you; will you need to buy
tools or assistive techonolgy, or ask someone to help you?
Make sure the goal is something that is relevant and important to you, so
that you can stay motivated to work on it. Think about why it’s important
to you, why you want to achieve it and what kind of impact reaching it
will have on you. Because if you pick something you’re not very bothered
about, you could struggle to find the motivation to finish your plan. But if
it’s something you really care about, you’ll find a way to keep working
Set yourself a clear deadline to reach your goal. When you have that
finish line in mind, it’s easier to plan out each step of the journey so you
know what you need to be working on and when. And don’t be concerned
with how long other people take to reach similar goals. Everyone works at
their own pace, and if your neurodivergence means you need to take your
time, do what works for you.
In the end, it took me 9 years to get my degree, working at it part-time
to accommodate my various disabilities. That’s over twice as long as the
average able-bodied student in Scotland, but that was the realistic
timescale for me to allow me to get the support I needed.
So it doesn’t matter how big or small your goal is, don’t let anyone stand
in the way of what you want to achieve. And why not try the SMART goal
system to see if it helps make your journey more manageable.