Autism & Setting SMART Goals at College

Autism and SMART goals. Contributor Katie Matthews takes a step-by-step approach to introduce you to “SMART” goal-setting. If you struggle with organization, time management, or executive functioning, this method can support your college outcomes. 

You may have heard before that setting goals increases your motivation to take action steps. It also increases personal accountability and helps you organize. These qualities are necessary to make your goals a reality.

The acronym SMART is often used to identify particular qualities that help people create clear, concise, reachable goals.

Relevant – or Realistic/Rigorous/Results focused
Timely – or Trackable

George Doran, Arthur Miller, and James Cunningham coined the term SMART goals in the November 1981 issue of the Management Review, titling their article: “There’s a S.M.A.R.T way to write management goals and objectives.” SMART is now widely accepted as an effective goal-setting strategy. SMART goals can be developed at any point in your academic process. Not every goal will have all five elements of the acronym, but some will. The idea is not to write perfectly crafted goals, but rather to think critically about what short-term objectives are necessary to achieve your long-term goals.

What’s the difference between a long- and short-term goal?

A long-term goal will be more generic, such as “becoming a software developer” or “enrolling in my local community college.” You can have multiple long-term goals! Short-term goals are smaller goals that lead to achieving long-term goals. SMART goals are essentially a type of short-term goal with very specific action steps.

Let’s look at an example of a SMART goal and then take a deeper look at the various components.

Let’s say you had a long-term goal of enrolling in your local community college for classes that start three months from now. Then, let’s imagine that you made a list of all the smaller goals you needed to accomplish. For example, your list might look something like this:

  • Register for classes
  • Visit the Disabilities Services Office
  • Meet with an advisor
  • Practice getting to and from campus
  • Fill out and submit an application
  • Research student clubs

Then, you might prioritize each small goal on your list, and make a SMART plan for each of them. That way, instead of looking at seven small goals and one larger goal all together, you take one at a time and work through the process. In this instance, you might identify “fill out and submit an application” as the number one priority. Then, you could make the goal even more concrete and important by walking through the steps below and jotting down notes in relation to the goal you’re working on. How will you attain this goal? When does it have to be achieved in order to complete the other SMART goals that will result in enrollment three months from now?

It is also terrific to ask for assistance. If you get to the question of “Attainable” in a SMART goal, and you are facing a barrier you don’t know how to overcome, seek support!

Being SMART doesn’t mean doing everything all on your own.

Specific: Your goal should be focused on just one exact area. Think about:

  • “What do I want to accomplish?
  • Why is this goal important?
  • Who is involved?
  • Where is it located?
  • Which resources or limits are involved?”(Bell et al., n.d.)
Measurable: having a part of your goal that involves “how much” or “how many” of something will help you be able to track progress along the way. This might be worded as a time constraint within your goal, such as “by 5:00 pm on Wednesday,” more broadly as in “before Spring semester begins,” or even an amount, such as “25 pages.”
Attainable: Think about the reasons why a goal hasn’t happened yet. Is it a reasonable goal based on your current expertise, experience, and financial situation? These are great points to talk about with an academic advisor, a parent, or favorite teacher.
Relevant: Consider aspects such as the timing of a SMART goal and whether it works well with your other goals. This will be a clue whether to pursue any particular SMART goal. Does this goal fit into your overall life priorities? For example, during a homework-heavy semester, is it relevant to work towards your goal of taking up a part time job in the evenings? Or might that particular goal derail your efforts to achieve your current school-related goals?
Timely: Short-term SMART goals are not meant to take as long as your long-term goals. They should be for shorter bursts of time such as six to twelve weeks. In the academic world, it is often reasonable to write out new SMART goals every week or every half semester, but not for your entire academic year. For example, if a long-term goal is to complete all assigned readings before the teacher discusses them in class, a short-term SMART goal might be something like, “I will read and take notes for one chapter in my Structural Analysis course textbook each week alone in the library before class meets on Tuesday.”

Because autistic students have, on average, more difficulty with executive functioning tasks such as managing time, planning ahead, task initiation and distraction inhibition, and prioritizing, SMART goals can be a powerful tool to help serve as a check-in point and planning strategy (Demetriou et al., 2017). Writing down SMART goals will not only increase the chances that you will complete them, but it will also help you practice and improve executive functioning skills.

Don’t forget to keep yourself accountable. Once you have outlined and created your short-term SMART goals, put them somewhere visible every day. This might be stuck on your mirror or tacked onto your bulletin board in your study space. Some students even like to write them in their weekly planner beside their assignments and test dates.

How do you use short-term goal setting to organize and prioritize your studies?
Have you ever tried SMART goal formatting? Let us know how it went in the comments below!

You might also like: “Get Ready, Do, Done” Model: Support Executive Functioning for Autistic Students or this exploration of SMART goals from NBC.

  • Demetriou, E. A., Lampit, A., Quintana, D. S., Naismith, S. L., Song, Y. J., Pye, J. E., . . . Guastella, A. J. (2018). Autism spectrum disorders: A meta-analysis of executive function. Molecular Psychiatry 23, 1198–1204. doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/mp.2017.75
  • Haughey, D. (2014, December). A brief history of SMART goals. Retrieved from https://www.projectsmart.co.uk/brief-history-of-smart-goals.php
  • MindTools.com. (2019). SMART goals – how to make your goals achievable. Retrieved from https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/smart-goals.htm
  • Terry, B. (2019.) 2019 goal setting, executive function, and planning skills. Retrieved from https://bonnieterrylearning.com/blog/goal-setting-executive-function-planning-skills/
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Katie is a part time speech and language pathologist and part time professional runner. Katie received both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Boston University in Speech, Hearing, and Language Sciences and Speech-Language Pathology, respectively. She also trains on the Boston Athletic Association High Performance Team. Katie has experience in public and private schools as well as private clinic settings. She works with children and young adults with a variety of disabilities, including those with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Katie loves to share executive functioning and planning tips along with the more traditional social language strategies to help students succeed.

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