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PFA Tips: 10 Ways to Build Independence

By Emily Mulligan, Autism Speaks Autism Response Team member

Download a printable version of “10 Ways to Build Independence”

In addition to self-advocacy skills, teaching your child skills that will foster his or her independence on the journey to adulthood is also of utmost importance. Starting to develop independence skills to the best of your child’s ability at a young age will make a difference in terms of the ease of this transition period. Building these skills little by little is an effective way to teach skills you may not have thought your child would need one day.

1. Strengthen Communication
If your child struggles with spoken language, a critical step for increasing independence is strengthening his or her ability to communicate by building skills and providing tools to help express preferences, desires and feelings. Consider introducing Alternative/Augmentative Communication (AAC) and visual supports. Common types of AAC include picture exchange communication systems (PECS), speech output devices (such as DynaVox, iPad, etc.) and sign language.

2. Introduce a Visual Schedule
Using a visual schedule with your child can help the transition from activity to activity with less prompting. Review each item on the schedule with your child and then remind him or her to check the schedule before every transition. Over time, he or she will be able to complete this task with increasing independence, practice decision making and pursue the activities that interest him or her.  You can learn more about using visual supports by downloading the ATN/AIR-P Visual Supports and Autism Spectrum Disorder Tool Kit.

3. Work on Self-Care Skills
This is a good age to introduce self-care activities into your child’s routine. Brushing teeth, combing hair and other activities of daily living (ADLs) are important life skills, and introducing them as early as possible can allow your child to master them down the line. Make sure to include these things on your child’s schedule so he or she gets used to having them as part of the daily routine.

4. Teach Your Child to Ask for a Break
Make sure your child has a way to request a break – add a “Break” button on his or her communication device, a picture in his or her PECS book, etc. Identify an area that is quiet where your child can go when feeling overwhelmed. Alternatively, consider offering headphones or other tools to help regulate sensory input. Although it may seem like a simple thing, knowing how to ask for a break can allow your child to regain control over him or herself and his or her environment.

5. Work on Household Chores
Having children complete household chores can teach them responsibility, get them involved in family routines and impart useful skills to take with them as they get older. If you think your child may have trouble understanding how to complete a whole chore, you can consider using a task analysis. This is a method that involves breaking down large tasks into smaller steps. Be sure to model the steps yourself or provide prompts if your child has trouble at first!

6. Practice Money Skills
Learning how to use money is a very important skill that can help your child become independent when out and about in the community. No matter what abilities your child currently has, there are ways that he or she can begin to learn money skills. At school, consider adding money skills to your child’s IEP and when you are with your child in a store or supermarket, allow him and her to hand over the money to the cashier. Step by step, you can teach each part of this process. Your child can then begin using these skills in different settings in the community.

7. Teach Community Safety Skills
Safety is a big concern for many families, especially as children become more independent. Teach and practice travel training including pedestrian safety, identifying signs and other important safety markers; and becoming familiar with public transportation. The GET Going pocket guide  has many useful tips to help individuals with autism navigate public transportation. Consider having your child carry an ID card which can be very helpful to provide his or her name, a brief explanation of his or her diagnosis, and a contact person. You can find examples of ID cards and other great safety materials.

8. Build Leisure Skills
Being able to engage in independent leisure and recreation is something that will serve your child well throughout his or her life. Many people with autism have special interests in one or two subjects; it can help to translate those interests into age appropriate recreational activities. The Autism Speaks Resource Guide  contains activities that your child can get involved with in your community; including team sports, swim lessons, martial arts, music groups and more. In Maryland visit our online provider database.

9. Teach Self-Care during Adolescence
Entering adolescence and beginning puberty can bring many changes for a teen with autism, so this is an important time to introduce many hygiene and self-care skills. Getting your teens into the habit of self-care will set them up for success and allow them to become much more independent as they approach adulthood. Visual aids can be really useful to help your teen complete his or her personal hygiene routine each day. Consider making a checklist of activities to help your child keep track of what to do and post it in the bathroom. This can include items such as showering, washing face, putting on deodorant and brushing hair. To stay organized, you can put together a hygiene “kit” to keep everything your teen needs in one place.
One tip for teaching independence skills like self-care is to think of the specific skill you’d like your child to learn and work backwards so that you can break down lessons piece by piece and eventually build to your goal. For example, if you are teaching your child to bathe on his or her own, you can teach him or her step-by-step, gradually lowering your involvement in the process.

Steps to Bathing

1. Identify when a shower is necessary.
2. Turn on the shower.
3. Find the desired water temperature.
4. Use soap to wash arms, legs and stomach.
5. Use soap to wash underarms and private parts thoroughly.
6. Wet and use shampoo to wash hair.
7. Rinse off soap and shampoo until no more bubbles.
8. Turn off the shower.
9. Dry off with towel.
10. Get dressed.

Be sure to reinforce your child with positive feedback once he or she masters each step. Motivation is critical to learning and as your child becomes familiar and more competent with new skills, confidence, interest and motivation will increase. Keep in mind that each step might take a long time, some more than others, but the ultimate goal remains the same – to teach your child appropriate self-care and hygiene, an important skill as he or she ages into young adulthood.

10. Work on Vocational Skills
Starting at age 14, your child should have some vocational skills included on his or her IEP. Make a list of his or her strengths, skills and interests and use them to guide the type of vocational activities that are included as objectives. This is also a time to start planning for the future. Consider all of the ways up to this point that you have been fostering your child’s independence: communication abilities, self-care, interests and activities and goals for the future. The Community-based Skills Assessment (CSA) can help you evaluate your child’s current skills and abilities to create an individualized transition plan.

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Additional Resources

Transition Toolkit by Autism Speaks

“I Can Do It Myself!” Using Work Systems to Build Independence in Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders

“How do I teach a person with ASD to be more independent?

“Keys to Successful Independent Living, Employment and a Good Social Life for Individuals with Autism and Asperger’s” by Temple Grandin

© 2018 Pathfinders for Autism



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