Independence requires many skills and abilities that most individuals learn through observation and trial and error. Unfortunately, this type of learning is very difficult for people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Therefore, in order for people with ASD to become independent the necessary skills and knowledge need to be directly taught. The question becomes what independent skills do you teach? For people with ASD, the answer is many more than you think. Below is an outline of the different areas to be considered when helping people with ASD to become more independent. This is just an outline and I plan to give examples of how to address these areas in future posts.
Skills/Knowledge - This is what is most commonly taught in the schools. However, the majority of what is taught is academic skills. That leave many young adults with a high level of academic knowledge, but no idea of how to use it or live like an adult. It is important for parents and students to advocate for greater inclusion of the other knowledge areas in the students education plan. Be careful about too combative with schools. More success is gained when you advocate in a respectful way and work together as a team.
Academic Knowledge - This type of knowledge is most helpful when it is geared toward a specific career path or vocational trade.
Self Care Skills - This type of knowledge is important for individuals with ASD at all functioning levels. Whether its dressing, cooking, shopping, nutrition, cleaning, or hygiene its not just important to explain how to take care of yourself, but also why it is important to do so.
Social Skills - Even for those with superior knowledge, no one is able to survive in this world alone. Even if friendship is not desired, basic relating and politeness is necessary to function in society. Also, companionship and a sense of affiliation are essential for good mental health.
Community Knowledge - Whether its knowledge of banks, civic institutions, or community resources, knowing how to access and use these are essential to gaining needed support.
Executive Function - It is not enough just to be able to absorb knowledge. For true independence many students with ASD need to be taught how to think in a practical way. Having good executive skills allows people to complete work with less effort and stress, thus increasing the likelihood for completion.
Organization - Many individuals with ASD not only need a system for organizing their work materials and possessions, but they often need an outline for organizing their thoughts as well.
Planning - Many people with ASD naturally tend to only think in the moment and have much difficulty planning ahead and thinking about what might be needed for the future. They may also have difficulty anticipating potential hazards or risks, or whether they have the necessary skills or materials to complete a task.
Prioritization - Like with organization a system may need to be developed to help a person rank competing activities/responsibilities in terms of importance rather than preference.
Decision Making - Overly passive behavior and prompt dependence could be a result of not knowing how to weigh risks and benefits when making decisions.
Navigation - Many people with ASD may know what to do in a specific situation, but not how to do it. This is often associated with lack of initiation or completion of activities. This is further compounded when the person is resistant to or does not know how to ask for assistance.
Effort/Motivation/Emotion Management - Even with knowledge and organizational tools, engaging in independent behavior requires a high level of effort. Unfortunately motivation and coping strategies come naturally to very few people with ASD. On the other hand, many people with ASD can learn to develop motivation and coping skills with the right kind of training.
Physical Conditioning - Energy is needed to maintain effort, impulse control, and concentration. Good sleep habits, a health diet, and regular exercise are essential to maintaining energy.
Understanding Long Range Benefits - Delayed gratification can be understood, but the reasons for delaying gratification often need to be directly explained and accepted before motivation to delay immediate pleasure is accepted.
Impulse Control - Even when some individuals know the long range benefits they still lack the skills needed to control/delay immediate urges.
Coping with Disappointment, Frustration, and Setback - Even with all possib;e supports put in place, there will be times when failure and frustration is experienced. learning how to cope with these situations can help foster the perseverance needed to keep going when times get difficult.
Using Emotion in a Positive Way - Emotion can be used to harness the energy needed for challenging tasks, but only when the person has the awareness and skills to control their feelings.
Managing Life around the Highs and Lows - Whether its physical, emotional, or even financial, we all go through periods of highs and lows. This can be difficult for someone who seeks perfection and predictability in all activities. Preparing a person for potential changes can be quite helpful for that person when the changes do occur.
Accessing Social Support - When individual coping methods fail, it is necessary to turn to a trusted person for support. People with ASD often need to be informed of where and how to access this support.
Steven C. Altabet , Ph.D.