Teaching Functional Living Skills to Individuals With Autism

Dr. Partington tells his clients, “Whatever you don’t teach him, long term, you will have to either do it for him or pay somebody else to do it for him.”  Take a second to think about the implications of this quote. This could include financial dependency and also a major time commitment from the parent.  Regardless of whether or not an individual has an autism diagnosis, it is important to teach him basic, functional living skills that will allow him to take care of himself.  Some of these skills may include the ability to independently brush his teeth, get dressed, take a shower, prepare basic meals, and maintain a clean living space or household. The more you teach him now, the less you’ll have to do to support him later!

While teaching methods may be different based on the existing skills of the learner, parents or instructors can either teach these skills as they naturally occur (such as getting dressed in the morning after waking up or brushing teeth after eating breakfast) or they can carve out time during the day to work on a specific skill.

When teaching a functional living skill (such as brushing one’s teeth), there are a few helpful hints to remember during the teaching process:

  • Simplifying the task: Break down complex skills (such as brushing teeth) into smaller, individual skills that the learner can be taught. These could include putting toothpaste onto the toothbrush, brushing a specific area in the mouth, spitting in the sink, rinsing mouth, rinsing the toothbrush and putting it away, etc. It is also helpful to identify the steps that the learner can perform on his own.  Let the learner perform those steps independently. Then, teach him to perform the other steps in the sequence.
  • Prompting: The learner will likely require some assistance as he learns to independently carryout each step of a complex task. For example, parents or instructors can provide physical guidance, use gestures, verbally state what to do, or write down step-by-step instructions for the learner to follow. As the learner develops the ability to consistently carryout each step, the level of assistance provided (i.e., prompting) should be reduced and eventually, eliminated.
  • Capture the learner’s motivation: A motivated learner is more likely to attend to the task and successfully use the skill. One strategy that can be used to increase his motivation is to withhold a highly preferred item or activity and only make it available after the learner completes the task. For example, tell the learner, “First, let’s brush our teeth, then we can go outside and play on the swing!”
  • Strengthen the response: To increase the chances that the learner will use the skill again in the future, he will need to see that there is a “payoff” for using it. If the parent or instructor shows the learner that “good things” happen when he uses the skill (praise is given, the learner gets to use a preferred toy or go to the park, etc.), he is more likely to use it again in the future.

This blog briefly touches on a few very important concepts that are needed when teaching functional living skills to an individual with autism.  For a more comprehensive overview of these concepts, we recommend the book Success on the Spectrum: How to Teach Skills to Individuals with Autism.  This resource is written in easy to understand language and will walk you through the teaching process.


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