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Autism is a cognitive disability, which means that these children have abnormalities in their brain function. When you teach life skills to autistic children, you provide them with the tools they need to live, work and interact positively with others.
Some basic things they need to be able to do for independent living are groom themselves, eat healthy foods and adhere to safety rules. A solid foundation in these basic skills makes it easier to teach them more advanced lifelong skills like money management, conflict resolution, or healthy living and working as they grow older.
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Three Basic Skills
Teaching the basics of hygiene, diet and nutrition, and safety covers three key areas of important knowledge for your child. As they learn and demonstrate mastery in these fields, you will want to include other skills such as how they can dress and toilet themselves, use proper manners and etiquette, and answer the phone.
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Taking a bath or shower sounds like it would be easy for most kids; however, for the child with cognitive difficulties, it is not easy or simple. The special-needs child may need to have all the steps written out or a combination of symbols and words displayed on a checklist or poster that she or he can use for constant reinforcement of how to complete the task.
Some key skills to teach in this area include basic grooming tasks like:
- How to brush your teeth and the equipment you need to do this.
- How to wash your hair, face and body and the supplies you need to perform each of these.
- When to shave or apply deodorant and how often these tasks should be carried out.
- When to change their underwear, and what to do with the dirty garments.
For example, to teach an autistic child how to brush his or her teeth, break down the steps like this:
- I need water, toothbrush, toothpaste, and a glass to brush my teeth.
- I put the toothpaste on the toothbrush and brush my teeth.
- I put water into the glass and take a mouthful to rinse out my mouth.
- I spit the water into the sink and rinse again.
- I rinse out the glass and sit it on the sink to dry.
- I rinse out my toothbrush and place it in my toothbrush holder.
- I brushed my teeth!
Use pictures or symbols to illustrate each step as the images reinforce the words and help the child remember better.
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Autistic children are notorious for having poor appetites or being picky eaters, which makes it even more important to teach them about diet and nutrition so they can make healthy eating choices.
You will want to teach them to eat fruits and vegetables daily and drink milk (if that is consistent with any dietary restrictions) and water. Offer them fish and meat, but do not force foods if they refuse to eat them. There are other ways to incorporate protein into their diets such as offering nuts or nut butters or legumes. They must understand that too much of anything can be a bad thing, and that some things – like salt and sugar- are best avoided or used sparingly.
Let them cut out pictures of foods they like and make a poster to remind them of the healthiest food choices. They can also make their own personalized grocery list and shop for some food items. Allowing them to help pick out their own foods could encourage them to eat more and make better food choices.
Note: Before you try any changes in your child's diet, it's important to consult your healthcare provider. Many of these children have food allergies and must follow specific diet plans. The information presented here is based solely on the author's experience with her autistic child and may or may not be appropriate for other children.
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Learning about walking and traffic safety is imperative because of the autistic’s child’s impulsivity. They must learn about the dangers of dashing into the street without looking or opening the door of a moving vehicle. They should be able to connect the red color of a traffic signal with the concept of stopping or freezing, yellow with waiting, and green with walking or crossing an intersection.
Teach them to walk on the sidewalk and how to cross streets safely at crosswalks or driveways. They should understand the boundaries of their yard or play area and learn to stay within that space.
Other safety rules to teach as life skills for autistic children are what to do if approached by a stranger or if there is a fire or flood. Help them learn to dial 911; if they are verbal, they should be able to give their name, address (including city and state) and telephone number.
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Advanced Life Skills
As your child matures and prepares for independent living, he or she will need more a more in-depth skills base from which to draw. Some key areas to ponder are:
Decision making: Being able to break a problem down into smaller chunks and work through each segment helps these kids learn problem solving skills. At a minimum, they need to know how to determine the root of the problem and state it in concrete terms.
Next, they need to identify some alternative options, select the one that they feel is the best choice, and implement it. Afterwards, they should analyze the results and learn from the experience.
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Entire books have been written on this subject, so narrowing it down to the basics may appear overwhelming. However, approach it just like decision making and break it down into smaller tasks.
For instance, what type of job will they need and how will they secure it? After they get a job, what type of transportation will they need, and how will they handle responsibilities like time management, appropriate behaviors and safety?
They need to understand what proper work attire is and is not and how to recognize and follow a chain of command. Although it can be an uncomfortable subject for some parents, appropriate and inappropriate sexual behavior must be discussed.
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When your child gets a job, what will he or she do with the wages? How will they learn to save for the future?
They need to understand the advantages and pitfalls of credit and how to pay their bills. Teach them how to create and follow a household budget and do comparison shopping to get the best prices. If they have a bank account, they need to know how to fill out deposit slips, write checks and balance a checkbook. If they will not have a bank account, who will handle their funds and how will their money be protected?
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Transportation is an important part of an individual's feeling of independence and of their self-esteem. Having to depend on others for transportation could jeopardize a job or relationship.
They will need to learn about the different types of public transportation or learn to drive a car (if possible). If they are going to drive, they need to understand the costs involved – like fuel, repairs, maintenance and insurance – and be able to afford them.
If they will rely on public transportation, they must still understand the various costs and have a plan in place to fund the transportation. Finally, they need to know that others may not always be willing to provide them with free transportation.
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Sometimes the scope of parenting an autistic child can seem too large or intimidating. From teaching social skills to teaching life skills to graduating them to independent living, every part of the journey seems more labor-intensive and complex than anything you have ever attempted before. Things that you take for granted or learned to do quite easily such as answering a telephone or carrying on a conversation must be taught to these children step by step by step.
Have you ever considered all the steps involved in simply washing your hair? Once you start to teach the process to an autistic child, you have a better understanding of how confusing it could seem to someone who cannot grasp the abstracts of the process.
However, the good news is that these children do not find learning impossible; they merely learn in ways that may be unfamiliar to you. Each of these children is special and unique and can learn according to their own skill set.
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Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs), American Academy of Pediatrics, 2006
Author's own experience of raising a child with autism, Asperger's disorder and ADHD