The Journey to Adulthood: Ten Ways to Build Independence for Your Teen on the Spectrum 

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As World Autism Month wraps up I have been reminded of the years I have spent working with kids and their families meet some of the challenges Autism can present. I have watched those kids begin to grow up and it has made me think about what a big (and long) process “growing up” is for all of us. The road to adulthood is filled with transitions for every child.  For families with loved ones who also have Autism starting to develop independence skills at a young age can make a big difference in the way they will experience the learning curve to independence.

So why start early? According to Autism Speaks, “the single most important predictor of positive outcomes in adulthood is the mastery of self-care skills such as bathing, dressing, cleaning and cooking. According to the researchers who tracked children with autism into middle adulthood, these skills prove more important than language, intellectual ability or the severity of autism symptoms when it comes to maintaining employment and achieving life satisfaction.” These skills can also take time to teach and even more time to perform well – it really depends on the needs of your child. Teaching life skills for any child is a long term process with changing developmental needs. Start early and you get into the practice of teaching those skills as much as your child gets into the routine of making those skills their own!

One way I recommend parents and caregivers start creating the road map is to teach independent living skills  is just do it a little by little to make those skills routine. Try and create a list of the steps your child needs to take to complete each skill and go from there. For example, if you are teaching your child to bathe on his or her own, you can teach him or her step-by-step, gradually lowering your involvement in the process:

  1. Identify when a shower is necessary.
  2. Turn on the shower.
  3. Find the desired water temperature.
  4. Use soap to wash arms, legs and stomach.
  5. Use soap to wash underarms and private parts thoroughly.
  6. Wet and use shampoo to wash hair.
  7. Rinse off soap and shampoo until no more bubbles.
  8. Turn off the shower.
  9. Dry off with towel.
  10. Get dressed.

Autism Speaks Canada shares 10 tips on how to build independence for your youth on the spectrum:

 1.) Strengthen Communication: At any age increase your child’s ability to communicate their needs and preferences whether it is through speech therapy, sign language or learning to use devices and apps.

2.) Introduce a Visual Schedule: Using a visual schedule with your child can help the transition from activity to activity with less prompting. Review each item on the schedule with your child and then remind him or her to check the schedule before every transition.

3.) Work on Self – Care Skills: Brushing teeth, combing hair and other activities of daily living (ADLs) are important life skills, and introducing them as early as possible can allow your child to master them down the line.

4.) Teach Your Child to Ask for a Break: Make sure your child has a way to request a break – add a “Break” button on his or her communication device, a picture in his or her PECS book, etc. Identify an area that is quiet where your child can go when feeling overwhelmed.

5.) Work on Household Chores: Having children complete household chores can teach them responsibility, get them involved in family routines and impart useful skills to take with them as they get older. Consider using task analysis (breaking down larger tasks into smaller steps) to help them understand and carry out their chore.

6.) Practice Money Skills: No matter what abilities your child currently has, there are ways that he or she can begin to learn money skills. At school, consider adding money skills to your child’s IEP and when you are with your child in a store or supermarket, allow him and her to hand over the money to the cashier.

7.) Teach Community Safety Skills: Teach and practice travel training including pedestrian safety, identifying signs and other important safety markers; and becoming familiar with public transportation.

8.) Build Leisure Skills: Being able to engage in independent leisure and recreation is something that will serve your child well throughout his or her life. Many people with autism have special interests in one or two subjects; it can help to translate those interests into age appropriate recreational activities.

9.) Teach Self-Care during Adolescence: Getting your teens into the habit of self-care will set them up for success and allow them to become much more independent as they approach adulthood. Visual aids can be really useful to help your teen complete his or her personal hygiene routine each day.

 10.) Work on Vocational Skills: Starting at age 14, your child should have some vocational skills included on his or her IEP. Make a list of his or her strengths, skills and interests and use them to guide the type of vocational activities that are included as objectives. This is also a time to start planning for the future.

Watching our kids grow is an exciting and, at times, scary process. However, with the right supports we can make sure that our youth, regardless of the challenges they face, can achieve success and happiness in their journey to adulthood.

Check out the full Transitions Toolkit from Autism Speaks and ask your therapist about ways you can begin implementing life skills into your strategies. Remember we will be with you every step of the way because small successes mean big victories!

Tamsin, OT and MM Owner

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