Encouraging independence | Ambitious about Autism
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Encouraging independence

Helping your child take those first steps to independence.

Teenager with autism in a cafeteria © Photo by Dave Hardman

The rewards of increased independence for your child are self-evident. An added sense of self-confidence and self-esteem and the ability to make their own decisions and blossom as an individual is what every parent wants for their child. More independence also means less need for support from you in the future.

Parents, however, are hard-wired to protect their children and keep them safe from harm. For a child with autism, in a world they sometimes struggle to understand, this can be the case even more so. The good news is that this is natural, so don’t worry about it too much! Be ambitious about what your child can achieve!

Instead of worrying, work with your child to increase their independence in ways that are comfortable for them and you. Small steps can equal big successes and steps should focus on your child’s developmental stage rather than age. What’s important to remember is that a desire for independence is a developmental milestone. Like all the other milestones you’ve had to deal with in your child’s life, their autism has perhaps presented additional challenges and delays but that desire still exists. They’re challenges you’ve worked hard on together to help them overcome.

By starting with the skills we often take for granted you’re setting your child up to be much more able to lead a fuller independent life with the ability to have a job, maintain a relationship and pursue the life they want for themselves.

Risk management

A barrier for parents can be the real and imagined risk factors involved, the “What if…?” questions we all ask ourselves. The simple fact is, risk is part of growing up and how we learn. Instead we need to make sure that we encourage the development of the necessary skills to cope in a given situation and that as parents, we can accurately assess the real level of risk we’re exposing our child to. By taking things at your child’s own pace and increasing incrementally they can learn to manage risk and challenge much better.

Why not start at home?

You don’t have to, and probably shouldn’t, dive in at the deep end when beginning to encourage independence. Small steps and setting your child up to succeed is a much better approach. Bear in mind however that failure and not getting things quite right first time is, of course, a fact of life. All children on the autism spectrum have some difficulty in developing transferable, generalisable skills. They may learn all the steps needed to complete a task but move that same task to a different setting; from school to youth club, for example, and they can struggle to cope. Change the context and, for the child with autism, you’re changing the task too.

Starting at home means a safe, comfortable environment that both you and your child are familiar with. Completing a task can offer a real sense of satisfaction and helping out with, for example, food preparation has measurable and hopefully tasty results!

If your child is helping you in the kitchen, start with them helping with one aspect of the task; gathering ingredients or maybe washing vegetables, for example. When that‘s been mastered you can then move on to other tasks- weighing ingredients and chopping vegetables maybe. This gives you enough reassurance that tasks are well practiced and your child has a bit of space to do it alone, if they can. 

Once your child is comfortable with one part of a task you can try and build in opportunities in other settings, contexts, and with other people. Their ultimate goal may be to make an edible meal or it might be something much more complex, either way by starting small and creating opportunities to try new things you’ll be encouraging independence at a level suitable for your own child.

What you can do to help

Be positive about encouraging independence- it can be scary to let go but that’s okay!

Start small. A small success is still a success.

Try to make realistic assessments of risk and remember, we learn from accidents too.

Try and create opportunities for skills learned at home to be built upon and used in different situations.

Lots of praise and positive reinforcement goes a long way.

Use rewards but don’t make them a crutch your child relies on to complete a task or try something new.

Be patient!

Useful links

Although not autism specific, Tim Gill’s 2007 book “No Fear: Growing up in a risk averse society” looks at the importance of risk in childhood development. The book is available as a free, downloadable PDF.

This article from the NHS website has lots of good ideas about supporting your child’s independence at meal times and was written by the mum of a child with autism.

This short article focuses on using everyday routines in your household to help develop independence in small, practical ways. It’s particularly relevant if your child has difficulty with their speech and language. 

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