Ways ABA Therapy Can Help with Life Skills

Life skills are essential for any person to develop throughout childhood, adolescence, and even in adulthood. Developing life skills can be even more challenging for people with autism spectrum disorder compared to neurotypical individuals. Sometimes life skills need to be strategically addressed so that people with autism can develop these important skills in order to experience more independent living and better quality of life. People with autism can also benefit from learning life skills as it will very likely increase their self-esteem, as well.

What are Life Skills?

Life skills are the tasks and activities that many people complete in daily life. Within therapy services, life skills might also be called independent living skills or daily living skills.

Examples of daily living skills include:

  • Cooking
  • Household chores
  • Money management
  • Brushing teeth
  • Taking a shower
  • Following a daily routine
  • Getting dressed

In addition to the specific examples we just stated, another way of looking at life skills is to consider the different areas of life that require independence and functioning.

Examples of life skill categories (that we can find in different areas of life) include:

  • Healthy habits
  • Safety skills
  • Employment and job related skills
  • Self-advocacy skills
  • Relationship skills
  • Community skills
  • Financial management
  • Transportation skills (driving or using public transportation)
  • Leisure skills
  • Household management

Many of these skills require executive functioning skills in order to complete independently. Executive functioning skills are skills that use higher cognitive abilities such as organization, time management, and problem solving.

How ABA Can Help Support Life Skills

ABA is an evidence based intervention for children with autism. ABA is based on the science of human behavior and learning. ABA, or applied behavior analysis, can be used to help people with autism develop life skills and become more independent. It is important to remember, though, that everyone will have different needs and different abilities. Because of this, the teaching approach is individualized to each person, based on what is best for them.

One of the most common tips is to create hands-on learning experiences for people with autism. Having the opportunity to practice the target skill will create the best learning environment for the person with autism to develop the skill. Not only do they need hands-on practice, but they also need other prompts and visual supports to help them have the best chance of success.

The practice opportunities will also be more likely to lead to skill development if they occur in the natural environment or in a situation which is closely related to the actual environment where the skill would normally take place in everyday life.

Tips for Teaching Life Skills

Teaching life skills is complex and should be individualized to each individual.

Assessment of Life Skills

Before teaching life skills, it is important to find out what needs and abilities the person currently has. To do this, parents and therapists can assess the person’s skills. If you are a parent, you might use a checklist of life skills and review which skills your child is able to complete independently, which skills your child can do with assistance, and which skills your child is not able to complete at all.

In ABA therapy, BCBAs (Board Certified Behavior Analysts) will complete more structured and more in-depth assessments of the person’s life skills to determine what areas should be focused on and what areas the person can already perform independently.

Visual Supports

Using visual supports can greatly help people with autism complete life skills without needing as much help from others. Visual supports include things like checklists, charts using images or text of the steps of the life skill, labels of items and locations of needed materials for the life skill, and daily routine visuals, as well.


Prompting is all about providing support so that the learner can be more successful with the task being asked of them. Providing prompts is an essential part of helping someone develop a new skill.

Types of prompts include:

  • Verbal prompts (using words vocally to help the learner perform the skill)
  • Gestural prompts (using gestures, such as pointing, to help the learner perform the skill)
  • Visual prompts (as we mentioned earlier, these are using visual stimuli to give the learner something visual to assist them in completing the task)
  • Physical prompts (helping the learner by giving them physical assistance to perform the skill)
    • Be careful not to use physical prompting in an aggressive or forceful manner. Some children do need physical prompts to learn and develop skills but we should always be very mindful of how we use physical prompts so as to not make the learner feel that we are “forcing” them to do something.


Shaping is teaching a new behavior by reinforcing closer and closer demonstrations (also called approximations) to the end goal (the target skill). For example, if the learner is working on brushing their teeth, you can provide reinforcement (a reward of some kind or simple praise if that is effective for the individual) based on them putting the toothbrush in their mouth and moving it around their mouth for about ten seconds.

Then, after reinforcing this performance level a few times, you could expect the learner to brush their teeth by moving the toothbrush on their teeth for 30 seconds. Then you would reinforce this a few times. Later, you would expect the person to brush for one minute, then two minutes, then you might focus on ensuring that specific areas of the mouth get brushed. This is called shaping.

How ABA Can Help Teach Life Skills in Individuals with Autism

ABA strategies can be used to teach life skills to anyone including people with autism. As a review, we discussed various tips and strategies for teaching someone life skills using ABA. We discussed the concepts of assessment, visual supports, prompting, and shaping. These are just a few examples of how ABA can help someone develop life skills.

Reach out to Behavioral Innovations to consult with a professional who is experienced in teaching life skills.

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