How to Teach Life Skills to Autistic Teenagers
Life skills are very important for everyone and can be especially challenging to some autistic people. Being able to perform tasks on their own can lead to independent living, increased self-esteem, a healthier lifestyle, and more options for living situations and work opportunities. Here are some guidelines for assisting your teen in learning life skills.
Preparing to Teach
Consider the teen's ability level.Autistic people are very diverse, and have vastly differing needs. Some need round-the-clock care, while others only need a little help here and there. Consider what the teen can do now, and what would be good for them to learn next.
- Does the teen have the necessary fine and gross motor skills? For example, if they can't carry a heavy item safely, then they wouldn't be able to carry a pot full of water while cooking.
- How is their attention span? Consider whether they'd be able to focus on the task as long as is needed. If it involves coming back in a certain amount of time, can they set a timer and pay attention when it goes off?
- What about their tolerance for frustration? Some autistic teens have perfectionist tendencies, or can't handle frustration well. Is the teen ready to handle the challenges of the task?
Prioritize.Some skills are more essential than others. For example, an adult can go through life without knowing how to bake, whereas knowing how to do laundry is much more crucial. Start with the most essential tasks, and work on more optional tasks later.
Expect for the teen to take longer to learn the task.You'll probably need to show them the same steps several or many times over, even if the teen is very intelligent, to help them feel familiar and comfortable with the task. Manage your expectations, and expect it to take a while. This is normal and okay.
Consider involving an occupational therapist.If the teen has an occupational therapist, the therapist may have good advice for teaching the skill, or may even say that they can do it themselves. Occupational therapists who specialize in developmental disabilities usually know extra tricks to help teach life skills.
Talking to the Teen
Ask them about their goals.What do they want in life? What type of life do they see themselves leading? What do they wish for? Talking with them about their dreams for the future can help you figure out which skills are most important.
- Try having them do a project (like a collage or presentation) about what they would do in life if money were no object. Then see what parts of that dream could become a reality. For example, maybe "live in a mansion" can't happen, but "own a dog" or "take acting classes" could.
Draw up a list of life skills together.It's best to let the teen have a say in what they're going to learn. Collaborate on a list of skills that seem reasonable, useful, and realistic.
Talk to them about what they think is realistic.The teen probably has a decent sense of what does and doesn't feel possible. You want to pick skills that are a little bit outside of their comfort zone, but not so far outside it that they panic or crash and burn. Look at skills that the teen feels fairly optimistic about being able to do.
- If the teen feels that they can't do it, then they probably won't succeed. Don't push it. Instead, just model the skill and let them watch.
- For example, maybe the teen says that driving is scary and too overwhelming, and they feel they can't do it safely. In that case, look at skills like using the bus.
Be prepared to ask questions and get feedback along the way.Teaching isn't just about lecturing; it's a 2-way discussion in which the teen should feel able to ask questions, make comments, and speak freely. You can also ask them questions about how they feel about what they're learning.
Teaching a Skill
To teach a new skill, start small and have them do more and more as they become more comfortable.
Set up a pleasant environment each time.Teaching a skill isn't just about imparting knowledge; you also want to help the teen feel comfortable and relaxed about the task.
- Choose a quiet time, when other people aren't bustling around and being distracted. You want the room to yourselves.
- Turn off any devices that are making noise, or play some of your teen's favorite music at a quiet volume. (Don't be afraid to ask the teen what they prefer.)
- Keep conversation light and pleasant. If you want, try talking about the teen's special interests while you work. Making it fun will help the teen stay engaged, and you can both have a good time.
- Make quitting be an option. If you or the teen is getting frustrated or upset, say "we can take a break" and end the lesson for today. You can pick it up again when both of you are in a good mood.
Prepare visual aids as needed.Some autistic people benefit from having lists, with or without pictures, explaining the steps in a task. This can help them stay focused and remember all the steps. A written list could work, or you could add photos or drawings to the list if they are helpful.
- If you notice the teen struggling to remember steps as the lessons progress, try writing or drawing out some instructions, and keeping them in the necessary area. For example, you could put instructions on using the washing machine in the laundry room.
Be prepared to explain the task and why it is important.While some teens may intuitively know why the task matters, others may not be sure why knowing how to do the task is useful for them. If they know why they're doing it, it may help motivate them.
- For example, "Baking is a great skill to have as an adult. It means that if you want cake or cookies, you can make some anytime. It's also a nice thing to do when you have guests over. And I think it would be fun to bake something good with you. What do you think?"
Offer lots of praise when they do something well.This helps them feel good about their success, and motivates them to continue doing their best. Give plenty of praise, even if they don't do it perfectly or quickly right away. Encouragement will help them do better.
Have the teen watch while you do the task and explain it.Tell them what you're doing, and what decisions you're making. Just have them watch you. Keep it pleasant and lighthearted, because your first goal is for them to feel comfortable with the task.
- Expect to repeat this step several times, seeing how things go and how much your teen is learning.
Start having the teen help out here and there.Try having them do small tasks (like pouring in the detergent while you watch) or asking little questions (like what temperature is best for colorful clothes) and seeing how it goes.
- If the teen does something wrong, reassure them that it's okay and that this is a normal part of learning.
Start having the teen do large portions of the task with you.For example, if you're baking, you might have them measure ingredients and do a lot of the stirring. Make it a collaborative effort, with the two of you helping each other. Give gentle advice to the teen if they aren't doing something quite right.
- You can also ask them to check your work, or to remind you how to do something. Some teens enjoy playing the role of teacher, and teaching back to you what you've told them before.
Start helping less and less.Just watch them while they do it, giving reminders as needed. Eventually, you can have them do it themselves with no supervision.
- If the teen has anxiety or self esteem issues, they may be worried about doing it without you. Be patient, and be there while they do it. Eventually, you can be less and less attentive, perhaps going to the next room over and being available if they call for you, until they build confidence.
- Change can be extremely difficult for autistic people and it is necessary to be consistent and be repetitive over a long period of time.
- Repeat frequently, 1 or 2 times a day over a period of 6 months.
- Don't scold or punish the teen if they aren't doing the task well. This might make them associate negative feelings with the task, and make them afraid to do it. Assume that they're doing their best, and that failure is a sign that they're struggling (not that they aren't trying).
Video: How to Teach Life Skills : Teaching Life Skills to Autistic Teenagers
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