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Teaching Life Skills to Autistic Children

When it comes to teaching autistic children, many parents feel unqualified to create and implement a life skills program. While all children need to learn practical, simple skills for living, autistic children don’t learn in the same way typical kids do. They need repetition, prompts, and a detailed plan that tells or shows them exactly what to do, and when.

While a child is never too young to begin learning these skills, special kids require extra time and the space to learn in their own way. At three or four, that may seem an impossible task; especially when sensory issues interfere. But with a little creativity, understanding, and an individualized program, children with autism can reach their full potential.


Teaching an Autistic Child

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Break Life Skills Down Into Steps

Creating a good, individualized program for autistic children begins with dividing basic life skills into steps. Life skills are the simple, everyday tasks people often take for granted. Things like:

  • getting dressed
  • taking a bath or shower
  • fixing your hair
  • brushing your teeth
  • tying your shoes
  • or picking up toys

However, these common tasks are often too difficult for a child with autism, unless taught how to do them. It’s the teaching, however, that scares most parents. To make the job more manageable, break the process down into simplified chunks, with the size of the steps dependant on the child’s ability.

For example, instead of focusing on brushing teeth as a whole, think about the different tasks required to complete that skill. While a typical child can watch you get out the toothpaste, take off the cap, squeeze some paste onto the bristles, brush your teeth, and then follow your lead – an autistic child can’t. It’s too many things to consider. While autistic kids can memorize, sensory issues prevent them from remembering more than one or two steps at a time. Not until the process becomes automatic.

Teach Autistic Children Life Skills Using the Same Order

When autistic characteristics interfere, use these tendencies, rather than fight against them. Since ritual is important to most of these kids, after breaking down the skill into small steps, run the program exactly the same way every time – and make the order of the steps a rule. Autistic children love rules. They understand them, due to their concrete, literal thought patterns. Rules and ritual bring structure. They make the child feel secure and in control.

What they don’t understand is generalities, inferences, abstract ideas, and hints. They need clear prompting, like “what’s next?” They need specific language where you tell them exactly what they need to do. But be careful not to give them too much information all at once. Most kids can master only one small step at a time. The goal is to create habit and help the child understand what to expect.

Additional Teaching Helps

Succeeding with a personalized plan requires flexibility, but be careful you don’t start correcting everything the child does. Let him be imperfect. Change creates fear of the unknown, and you want to ease the stress, not create more. Also, keep in mind that what works today, might not work tomorrow. Be on the lookout for new ideas and strategies. It’s a good idea to stockpile a few, even if you don’t need them right now.

Picture Charts: Many autistic children learn visually. Creating a picture chart with magazine cutouts, drawings, photos of your child or a sibling doing the different steps helps him remember what comes next. Charts can hang on the wall, or you can tuck them into a large zip lock bag for protection. Awarding the child stickers or check marks as he completes or masters each step is also a great idea.

Hand-over-Hand Training: To do this, place the child’s hand on the toothbrush, then place your hand on top of his and show him how to brush. Be aware that for touch-sensitive children, the process can be uncomfortable. If so, keep your hand on his for only a few seconds the first time. Each time thereafter, gradually linger your hand a little longer, until he finds your touch more comfortable. As the child learns what he’s supposed to do, slowly pull back, and allow him to do it himself.

Other Sensory Issues: When sensory problems are involved, the brain might cause the child to respond inappropriately, if at all. Hesitation is not always refusal. With Proprioceptive problems, for example, your child hears what you say, but his body doesn’t move – even if he consciously tells it to. Be patient if he has these difficulties. Just keep repeating what you want him to do, until the brain allows him to respond.

Autistic Children Need to Learn Life Skills

Autistic children need to learn important life skills the same as any other child, but often parents can cheat them out of that accomplishment when they don’t feel qualified to teach, or find it faster and easier to do the task themselves. Sometimes, special kids get so used to mom or dad doing everything for them, or always picking them up and carrying them from place to place, they have no interest in taking care of themselves, or doing simple tasks like walking. While teaching children with autism is harder than typical kids, helping them learn simple life skills is essential for them to reach their full potential.

  • References
    • 1. Ellen Notbohm., Veronica Zysk., Temple Grandin (Foreword). 1001 Great Ideas for Teaching & Raising Children with Autism Or Asperger’s, 2nd edition. Future Horizons: February, 2010.
    • 2. Jennifer McIlwee Myers., Temple Grandin (Foreword). How to Teach Life Skills to Kids with Autism or Asperger’s. Future Horizons: October, 2010.
    • 3. Alan Sohn., Cathy Grayson. Parenting Your Asperger Child: Individualized Solutions for Teaching Your Child Practical Skills. Perigee Trade: February, 2005.

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