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10 Ways to Build Independence from Preschool to High School

This is a post by Autism Response Team Manager Emily Mulligan. For resources and information, contact the Autism Response Team at familyservices@autismspeaks.org or by phone at 888-288-4762 (en Espanol 888-772-9050

On how you can help your child with autism increase their independence at home, at school, and in the community no matter their age. By introducing these skills early and building block by block, you can help your loved one with autism gain the tools that will allow them to be more independent throughout their lives.

Early Childhood and Preschool Age

1. Strengthen Communication

Some individuals with autism may have communication challenges and difficulty learning to use spoken language. If your child struggles with spoken language, a critical step for increasing independence is strengthening their ability to communicate by building skills and providing tools to help express preferences, desires, and feelings. Consider introducing Alternative/Augmentative Communication (AAC) and visual supports. Common types of AAC include picture exchange communication systems (PECS), speech output devices (such as DynaVox, iPad, etc.) and sign language.

For more information on AAC, technology and communication visit Autism Speaks Technology Central and click here to find out how to get an AAC Technology assessment for your child.

2. Introduce a Visual Schedule

Children with autism often do well with pictures and visuals. In particular, visual schedules provide a way to help understand what to expect throughout the day. Using a schedule with your child can help them transition from activity to activity with less prompting, lets your child select certain activities themselves, and choose when to complete them. When you first introduce a schedule, your child may need some cues to follow it. Review each item on the schedule with your child, and then remind them to check their schedule before every transition. Over time, they will be able to complete this task with increasing independence, practice decision making and pursue the activities that interest them. 

You can learn more about using visual supports by downloading the ATN/AIR-P Visual Supports and Autism Spectrum Disorder Tool Kit.

3. Work on Self-Care Skills

This is a good age to introduce self-care activities into your child’s routine. 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. Make sure to include these things on your child’s schedule so they get used to having them as part of the daily routine.

School Age

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 their communication device, a picture in their PECS book, etc. Identify an area that is quiet where your child can go when feeling overwhelmed. Alternatively, consider offering headphones or other tools to help regulate sensory input. Although it may seem like a simple thing, knowing how to ask for a break can allow your child to regain control over themselves and their environment.

5. Work on Household Chores

Having your child 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. If you think your child may have trouble understanding how to complete a whole chore, you can consider using a task analysis. This is a method that involves breaking down large tasks into smaller steps. Be sure to model the steps yourself or provide prompts if your child has trouble at first! Also, try using My Job Chart: a great tool to help both kids and adults learn to complete tasks and manage time.

Middle School – Beginning of Adolescence

6. Practice Money Skills

Learning how to use money is a very important skill that can help your child become independent when out and about in the community. 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 them to hand over the money to the cashier. Step by step, you can teach them each part of this process. They can then begin using their skills in many different settings in the community.

7. Teach Community Safety Skills

Safety is a big concern for many families, so here are a few steps you can take to teach community safety. Teach and practice travel training including pedestrian safety, identifying signs and other important safety markers; and becoming familiar with public transportation. The GET Going pocket guide has many useful tips to help individuals with autism navigate public transportation. Consider having your child carry an ID card which can be very helpful to provide their name, a brief explanation of their autism, and a contact person. You can find examples of ID cards and other great safety materials available in our Resource Library.

8. Build Leisure Skills

Being able to engage in independent leisure and recreation is something that will serve your child well throughout their 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. Our Resource Guide contains activities that your child can get involved with in your community; including team sports, swim lessons, martial arts, music groups, and more. 

For more information about participation in youth and community organizations, see our Leading the Way: Autism-Friendly Youth Organizations guide.

9. Teach Self-Care During Adolescence

Entering adolescence and beginning puberty can bring many changes for a teen with autism, so this is an important time to introduce many hygiene and self-care skills. 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 their personal hygiene routine each day. Consider making a checklist of activities to help them keep track of what to do, and post it in the bathroom. This can include items such as showering, washing face, putting on deodorant, and brushing hair. To stay organized, you can put together a hygiene “kit” to keep everything your teen needs in one place.

For additional help with puberty and teens, see these resources:

High School Age

10. Work on Vocational Skills

Starting at age 14, your child should have some vocational skills included on their IEP. No matter what abilities your child currently has, there are a variety of activities they can sample to see which jobs and vocations could be a good fit in the future. Make a list of their 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. Consider all of the ways up to this point that you have been fostering your child’s independence: communication abilities, self-care, interests and activities, and goals for the future. What programs and supports will your child need after high school? The Community-based Skills Assessment (CSA) can help you answer this question and evaluate your child’s current skills and abilities to create an individualized transition plan. 

For additional help, download our Transition Tool Kit here.

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.