Living independently is a goal that most people have for themselves, especially as they transition into adulthood. People with intellectual disabilities and other conditions, such as autism spectrum disorder, also often want to live as independently as possible, as do their parents and caregivers.
The International Journal of Developmental Disabilities refers to independent living (IL) as the “right of every individual to make his/her own decisions about his/her life and to control his/her daily life itself.”
Although some children on the autism spectrum may never be able to live completely on their own, parents often hope their children can learn as much as possible about daily living skills such as caring for their body, doing basic household chores, making their own meals, or snacks, and cleaning up after themselves.
To help your child or even an adult with autism be more successful with independent living, there are a few things you should consider. The person that you are helping should be able to do the following:
When teaching independent living skills to people with autism, first try to help them to identify their own personal interests, their abilities, and their needs along with their preferences, values, and beliefs. These will help them be better prepared for independent living both in their present and future living situations.
For example, consider how a person who self-reflects and is aware of their own needs, abilities, and preferences is better able to select a job that suits their individuality. Can they access and engage in enjoyable activities? Does the job require them to interact with a lot of people? Is the job in a loud environment or can it be done from the confined of their home? Questions like these can help in finding a suitable career choice for those on the spectrum.
Independent living is a broad concept that includes a variety of specific skills. Some of the skills that a child (or an adult) with autism should learn when the goal is to encourage independent living include:
Some of the basic daily living skills that can be taught when helping your child with independent living include things like cooking, cleaning up after oneself, money management, household chores, shopping, and accessing transportation (for individuals who would benefit from this skill).
It’s also important to help your child learn executive functioning skills which are related to how they think and process information. Some executive functioning skills that you could teach your child include organizing, planning, and time management.
One study assessed the views of people with disabilities, their caretakers, and professionals who work with them. The study wanted to understand what these groups think the most important skills are to support a person’s ability to live independently.
Results of that study were the following:
These results show us that we should address daily living skills along with employment and money management skills if our goal is to help children and adults with autism live independently. Learning these can be helpful whether the person lives on their own, with a roommate, or with their parent.
Everyone individual is unique, and this even applies to those on the autism spectrum. When it comes to supporting independent living, the types of skills that you should focus on will be based on your child’s unique needs, abilities, the goals they have for themselves, and the goals you have for them. Be sure to individualize your teaching approach based on what is best for your child.
To teach independent living skills to a child with autism, your approach can be structured or formal, or it can be a more natural and flexible approach, or a combination of both. An example of teaching your child a skill in a structured way is to have your child practice verbally telling you the steps to making a snack (such as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich) or putting the steps in order when you present him with images or words that represent the steps. Teaching in a natural approach involves having your child make the sandwich at snack time.
It is helpful to assess your child’s current abilities for specific skills. Observe your child and take note of things your child does well and things they struggle with. Or look at a specific skill and identify what part of that skill your child requires extra support with. You might also consider getting a formal assessment from a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) who can evaluate your child’s current level of functioning and identify what areas your child could benefit from working on.
Using visual supports is a great way to teach children with autism new skills. They can provide visual prompting or assistance to the child that helps guide them in performing specific tasks more independently and successfully. These include things like checklists, calendars, picture schedules, color coding systems, charts, lists, and token boards.
Using technology can also help support your child’s independent living skills. For example, if they have a smartphone, you could help them set alarms to remind them to do certain tasks or you could help them learn how to use a calendar on their phone.
Independence is not an easy thing to accomplish for anyone. Daily living skills, self-care skills, and other important skills that support independent living require lots of practice for most people even for people without disabilities. Be encouraging and supportive and know that it will take time for your child to develop independence.
It is also recommended that you help your child practice the skills you’re focusing on in a variety of ways. For instance, if your child is learning about how to count and spend money, you can practice this with play money during playtime with your child or you might set up a “store” at home and have your child earn money they can spend on items in your store. Also, be sure to give your child real-world opportunities to practice this in the community.
One important strategy for supporting independent living is to have routines. You can help your child by modeling daily routines. Have routines that you follow yourself or that you and your child do together. You can help your child follow daily routines for tasks that are important to their daily life. You can offer visual supports, such as a checklist, to increase their independence with following daily routines.
Community-based skills are one component of independent living. Autism Speaks provides a tool called the Community-Based Skills Assessment that parents and professionals can use to assess a person’s skills in a variety of areas. The assessment is appropriate for children 12 years and older. Autism Speaks reports the following about the assessment:
The tool is divided into three levels based on age. Eight areas of functional life skills will be assessed:
Remember, there is no “one size fits all” method of teaching independent living skills. It’s important to consider the unique needs and abilities of your child when doing so. You’ve got this!
Ioanna D. (2018). Independent living of individuals with intellectual disability: a combined study of the opinions of parents, educational staff, and individuals with intellectual disability in Greece. International journal of developmental disabilities, 66(2), 153–159. https://doi.org/10.1080/20473869.2018.1541560
Life skills and autism. Autism Speaks. (n.d.). Retrieved January 10, 2022, from https://www.autismspeaks.org/life-skills-and-autism