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How Can I Teach a Child with Autism Self-Help Skills?

Every child, despite having a disability, needs access to independent and daily-living (functional/adaptive) skills training. For some children, this may look like preparing a drink and a snack or dressing him or herself, or it might look like practicing toileting skills or learning an address and phone number. Parents, teachers, and professionals who work with a child with autism should assess where the child is at in relation to life-skills and being able to perform tasks independently and then prioritize the most attainable or relevant skill for that moment in time. 

Children with any level of autism can learn a variety of skills, even with the unique challenges that are brought to the table; however, being able to learn life and daily-living skills on an independent level require certain prerequisites and perhaps specific physical or mental capabilities depending upon the skill in question. 

What examples of assessments are used on children with autism to determine functional skill knowledge and capability? 

●    Assessment of Basic Language and Learning Skills (ABLLS)

○ Benefits: Allows administrator to identify deficiencies in language, academic, self-help, and motor skills and then implement and monitor individualized intervention

○ Ages: Birth to 12 years

○ Admin Time: Depends on skill level of the child being evaluated and the administrator’s familiarity with the child

○ Format: Criterion-referenced assessment based on observation of child’s skills, plus scoring instructions and IEP development guide

●    Vineland Adaptive Behavior Skills (VABS)

○ Benefits: Allows administrator to adaptive behaviors in individuals with autism, which includes communication, daily living skills, socialization, motor skills, and maladaptive behavior

○ Ages: 0-90+ years / teacher form: 3-21 years 

○ Admin Time: Depends on form type and level of comprehensiveness 

○ Format: Computer-based test administration means fewer (or no) administration materials and less time spent scoring. 

A child has been assessed—now what?

Once an assessment has been conducted on a child with autism, or a teacher, parent, or professional has completed a rating on the child in the appropriate categories, it is now time to evaluate the results and create a plan of action.

Rating systems and assessments always come with scoring guidelines and more specifically what the range of scores means. For example, the Vineland uses a standard score for its domains and describes this as a mean of 100 and standard deviation of 15. When the report is printed out (after scores are input into an online system for automatic scoring), each domain is broken down and a percentile score is described as well as how the child would rate compared to the average child being rated (mean of 100). 

The Daily Living Skills domain assesses Jennifer’s performance of the practical, everyday tasks of living that are appropriate for her age. Her standard score for Daily Living Skills is 79, which corresponds to a percentile rank of 8. This domain is a relative weakness for Jennifer. 

According to a psychometric conversion table, a score of 79 is considered borderline, which for the Vineland, this is below the average and below average rangesyet above mildly, moderately, severely, and profoundly deficient adaptive behaviors ranges. 

Once scores are evaluated, it is time to make a plan of action for the child. Fortunately, functional skills can be worked on in a school setting and not solely in the home or a clinical setting, as long as the student has an Individualized Education Program (IEP), which will be fairly certain if they have autism and need to be working on functional skills. 

What are types of daily-living and independence skills adults can work on with children with autism?

The following categories of functional skills and information come directly from the Autism Awareness Center, Inc.’s website and are “The Seven Categories of Life Skills Necessary For Success For People With ASD.” 

●    Executive Functioning Skills

These are organizational skills that are needed to plan the day, break down a task, create a “to-do” list, and plan for chores, outings, etc. It will be an on-going process to build this skill, as it is something that is challenging for most of those with ASD.

●    Practical Living Skills

These skills encompass finding information (internet, books, newspapers, etc.), money skills (budgeting, bank accounts, credit cards, making change), travel (reading a map, using transportation, planning a trip), clothing (care, laundering, organizing), home care (garbage day, house cleaning, doing dishes) cooking, and shopping. One of the best ways to teach these skills is by involving the child in a daily routine, rather than doing everything for them. The earlier the adult includes the child in activities such as cooking, cleaning, and laundry, the longer they have to develop comfort and routines in these important areas.

●    Personal Care

This involves personal daily hygiene, exercise, nutrition, dealing with an illness, and coping with stress. Create and rehearse relaxation routines, make task breakdown lists for showering, toileting or toothbrushing if steps are missed without prompting.

●    Job Skills

How do you look for a job? Create a resume? Get work experience? Be a good employee? A good place to start to gain job experience may be through volunteer work. If parents volunteer for an organization, take the child along too to gain some experience.

●    Personal Safety

A tough topic to teach! Many children will memorize rules like don’t talk to strangers, but will not know when to break those rules if necessary. Under stress, some people lose their ability to speak. It may be a good idea to carry around a card with a few statements on it for those stressful moments when it can be hard to gather one’s thoughts. Teach what risks are, and how to avoid unsafe situations. For example, one rule may be not to use public transportation after dark if in a big city.

●    People Skills

This would fall under the topic of social skills. Areas that need to be developed are working in a group, making friends, asking for help, dealing with family relationships, communicating over the phone, conversation, etc. Social skills is a broad topic. Although social rules and etiquette can be taught, if the child is high functioning enough, think about teaching flexibility in thinking and perspective taking.

●    Self-Advocacy

A topic that is often forgotten, children need to be taught how to get their needs met effectively. They need to know how and when to ask questions, who to approach for help, when to give their opinion, and how to say no.

It is important to remember…

No matter the assessment results, plan of action, or the specific skills that end up being taught, the adults working directly with the child with autism need to:

● be patient with the learning process

● explicitly teach the skills to the child while using scaffolding 

● practice, practice, practice 

● remember that all children with autism are unique and will be at different levels 

● realize that learning daily-living and life skills on an eventual independent level is an on-going process 

● use visual supports to increase independence 

● generalize the skills the child is learning (home/school/community/and working with other individuals)

● work closely with other individuals in the child’s life

Many children with autism are fortunate to have adults in their lives who care greatly about them and believe that their future and independence is a priority. Teaching children self-help skills only empowers them to be able to do more and go far in life. 

ABA Programs Guide Staff

March 2020

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