Life Skills and Autism
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a lifelong developmental disability, which impacts an individual's communication, social skills and behaviour to varying degrees.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported in 2012 that 1 in 88 children has been identified with an autism spectrum disorder, based on data collected between 2000–2008.
While many of these individuals will develop the necessary skills to live independently and gain employment later in life, some will require support throughout their lives.
Teaching important life skills as early as possible to all individuals with autism can help ensure their best chance of a full, productive and happy life in the future.
There are many different skills that can be considered life skills. Typically, especially in a school setting, the phrase "life skills" is synonomous with "independent living skills."
For a young child, these include:
- feeding himself
- getting dressed independently
- brushing his teeth or hair
- washing his hands
- independent toileting
- being safe in the community
For older individuals with an autism spectrum disorder, functional life skills may include:
- telling time
- grocery shopping
- preparing a snack
- cooking a meal
- taking the bus
- ordering a meal in a restaurant
- doing laundry
- making a phone call
- managing money
- filling out a job application
Life skills, in a broader sense, also includes things such as social and interpersonal skills, communication, leisure and play skills and pre-vocational and vocational skills. All of these play an important role in an individual's ability to interact with others, be as independent as possible and reach his full potential in society.
Strategies for Teaching Life Skills to Children with Autism
There are a number of strategies that can be used by parents, teachers, EAs, therapists and others who are working with a child with autism, to teach functional life skills.
It is important to remember that many individuals with autism require very structured teaching, and repetition is critical whenever you are teaching a new skill. A skill that a typical child might need to have demonstrated a few times before they learn it may take hundreds of repetitions for a child on the autism spectrum.
Task Analysis: This is the process of breaking down a task into small specific steps and teaching one step at a time until the task is learned. For example, washing hands can be taught as separate steps of: turn on the water, wet hands, put soap on hands, rub hands together, rinse soap off hands, turn off water, dry hands.
Forward or Backward Chaining: Used in conjunction with task analysis, chaining involves a systematic approach of focusing on one step in the task many times with a child, until they are able to complete it without prompting or assistance, and then adding the second step to the process. This is repeated, adding one additional step each time, until eventually the child is able to complete the whole chain of steps independently. Teaching can be done by starting with the first step (forward chaining) or the final step (backward chaining).
Whenever possible, visual cues and reminders should be used to reinforce the steps being taught. Most individuals with autism are visual learners and these visual cues provide an easy way of helping them to stay on track with tasks. Even after a skill is learned, visual cues serve as a helpful reminder to many individuals with autism, and can help increase their independence and reduce frustration and anxiety.
Positive reinforcement is often used when teaching new skills to children with autism. For instance, they may be rewarded with a preferred activity or small treat after they complete the necessary steps in a new task they are learning.
Once a skilled is learned, it is important to generalize that skill to other environments. For instance, a child with autism may learn how to wash his hands a certain way at home, but be thrown off when asked to do it at someone else's home. This can happen for any number of reasons that we might not even comprehend, such as the taps may be different, they may have bar soap instead of liquid soap, or the bathroom itself may be brighter and overstimulating to the child.
iPad apps such as Pictello can be used to create customized social stories to teach life skills to individuals with autism
Tools to Teach Life Skills to Individuals with Autism
There are a number of tools which can help in your efforts to teach children and adults with autism important social skills and life skills. Some individuals will show a clear preference for one or two of these methods, while others will benefit from a multi-faceted approach to help reinforce learning.
Some of the most effective tools available are:
- Video Modelling - Many individuals on the autism spectrum benefit from being able to watch a task being completed, and video modelling allows the individual to watch a sequence over and over to help reinforce the steps in their mind. Video modeling can be used for anything from routine tasks such as brushing your teeth, to preparing a meal or a trip to the dentist.
- Pictures and Visual Aids - Most individuals with autism benefit from the use of visual schedules, and other visual cues. When teaching new tasks, a strip of pictures in a sequence that shows how the task should be completed is commonly used and helps reinforce the steps being taught.
- Social Stories - It is often useful to make or use social stories to help children with autism understand a concept from their own point of view. For instance, if you are trying to teach a child about safety, you can write a social story, using actual pictures of the child, that talks about things such as "it is important that I hold an adult's hand when I am crossing the street. We need to look both ways to make sure there are no cars coming. This helps keep me safe."
- iPad and iPhone Apps - The invention of the iPad has resulted in a tremendous advancement in developing new ways to teach individuals with autism. There are hundreds of apps that can help teach important communication and life skills, many of which incorporate tools such as video modelling, customized social stories and visual reminders.
Let's Cook! Life Skills for Kids on the Autism Spectrum
There are many important life skills that we all need to have to function effectively in society and be independent. Individuals with autism may take longer to learn many of these skills, and we may need to use many different techniques, strategies and tools to help reinforce our teaching. Every effort should be made to teach a variety of life skills, starting from young age, to help every individual with autism live a fulfilling life with as much independence as possible.