An important part of becoming more independent is developing the life skills we all use on a day-to-day basis. Some of these tasks can be complex; some can be regarded as ‘simple’. But for a child or young person with autism these skills, which we take for granted, can be hugely challenging.
Think about making a cup of coffee, for example. It’s a task often completed on auto-pilot in the morning. Think for a moment about all the individual steps required for success, the correct sequencing needed to get it right. It is actually a recipe for disaster; boiling water, electricity, what if the milk’s spoiled?!
From the simple to the complex, you can set your child up to succeed with a little forward planning and the use of learning tools suitable to their individual needs. Be ambitious about your aims and encourage your child to be ambitious too. A little extra push and encouragement all round can go a long, long way.
Typically, children with autism may have difficulty with;
- Planning and decision making; assessing their needs, reviewing options and ordering component parts of a task.
- Flexibility; a difficulty in “moving the goalposts” or taking another person’s views on board.
- Behaviour inhibition; difficulty with controlling their own thoughts and feelings and acting accordingly.
- Switching between tasks; difficulty in moving from one task to another.
- Updating goals; self-assessment and ‘trouble-shooting’ as you go
The difficulties your child might have with mastering an everyday skill are also referred to as ‘executive functioning’. This short video does a really good job of explaining executive functioning. Another area where your child might need some help is in developing their ability to generalise new skills as they learn them. People with autism often have great difficulty transferring a skill from one context to another. They might for example have mastered the ability to tie their shoelaces but be unable to tie a very similar knot in a piece of string.
What you can do to help
Start at home, where skills can be practiced in a safe and familiar environment.
Break more complex tasks down into smaller, more manageable chunks.
Use simple, straightforward language - no metaphors!
Use written and/or visual cues to aid learning.
If you’ve got access to technology- a smartphone, tablet or computer- that your child responds well to, use it.
Practice, practice, practice!
Use of lots of praise and positive reinforcements.
Rewards are great but make them specific and relevant to your child.
Try and find ways to allow your child to practice skills in new settings.
Social stories and comic strip conversations are great ways of breaking down complex situations or tasks. Comic strip conversations, as the name suggests, tend to be more visual in nature. Both are really valuable tools for helping your child learn about a particular task or to get them prepared for a new experience.
A really good example of using a visual story can be seen via the website of the Lion King Theatre production. Each run of the show offered ‘autism friendly’ performances supplemented by a downloadable visual story about what to expect on arriving at the theatre.
Lists and timetables are also useful tools in helping your child structure their time, improve their organisational skills and successfully complete tasks. Remember too that there’s a wealth of technology available that can help as well. Particularly for older children, calendar apps on tablets and smartphones can be used to prompt them throughout the day. Simple text-messaging too can be a great way for you to remind your child of where they need to be and what they need to be doing at specific times. These are also great ways to help a high functioning child, when they might be otherwise embarrassed or unwilling to rely on more wieldy physical resources like visual timetables.
Ideas for at home
There’s a lot you can do at home to help your child learn and practice life skills. You can either have them help with actual tasks around the home or, taking a leaf out of the book of this enterprising teacher, set up a life skills room or space. Practicing skills like sorting and matching help develop a child’s confidence and self-esteem and once mastered you can move on to trying them out in other settings.
Another great way to promote skill development is to involve your child in food preparation; cooking or baking. Not only does following a recipe offer structure and order but there’s also a tangible outcome for your child to work towards- something tasty to eat! Working together in the kitchen also allows you to work on related skills including safety and hygiene.
The most important thing to remember when working on life skills with your child is to take it at their pace, make the tasks fun and, whenever possible, include some kind of tangible outcome. This will give your child a sense of satisfaction and increased self-confidence.