The transition years prepare adolescents for life as an adult, including living as independently as possible, securing and maintaining employment and effectively interacting in the community. Children with autism spectrum disorders approaching adolescence and their families are faced with great challenges achieving a successful transition. The best transitions begin with preparation long before adolescence, focusing on the acquisition of self-care and daily living skills that increase success in the school, home, and community settings.
Just as the most effective transitions center around a team approach that includes parents, educators, and specialists all focused on unified goals, the same philosophy will help children approaching adolescence succeed. This collaborative commitment helps foster a deeper understanding of the vastly evolving needs of a child growing into adolescence and supports a more comprehensive and inclusive approach to problem-solving across multiple settings the child will encounter throughout life.
Schools and educational programs can provide rich teaching environments, helping students develop skills within a functional context, generalizing from the classroom to home and community (Harris and Trusler, 2012). As an example, wiping a table is a skill that can be taught in the classroom following snack, and transferred to the home to be generalized after family meals. Eventually the development of this skill can lead to the employable skill of setting tables in a dining room or restaurant in the community.
Prior to instruction it is essential to determine what resources and supports are needed for success. Instructional strategies must be consistent with current evidence based practices, as outlined in the National Standards Project Phase 2, (2015). Examples of instructional considerations include:
- transportation and staff support needs;
- individual or group instruction;
- lesson formats (i.e. forward or backward chaining, total task presentation);
- appropriate prompting strategies:
- reinforcement procedures;
- visual supports;
- and ongoing data systems to assess student progress.
Routinely performed relevant and meaningful activities not only help students master skills, they also create a foundation for the transition years ahead. Opportunities for instruction in communication, social, and academic skills should be blended into all activities. Schools and educational programs are positive training grounds where students participating in a functional program can “begin to practice some of the skills that require intense training over an extended period of time for the student to succeed” (V. Lundine & C. Smith, 2006). When classroom teams are actively planning how to enhance the weekly class schedule by increasing in-situ instruction, the following should be considered:
- What meaningful activities can be implemented in the classroom? Ideas include cooking and meal activities, recreation routines, self-care routines, and cleaning routines;
- What can students do outside of the classroom, but in the school? Ideas include exercise routines, school clubs, service learning projects, and school jobs in the cafeteria, office, library, grounds crew;
- What types of weekly community-based instruction can be included? Ideas include purchasing in stores, eating in restaurants, recreation, and community-based job training sites.
Parental involvement is essential in bridging skills from school to home. All resources and strategies used in teaching young students in the educational setting should be shared with the family for their continued use at home. Instruction, as necessary, should also extend to parents who may be unfamiliar with various practices that enhance skill acquisition.
What Skills Should Be Targeted?
Attaining skills in self-care, daily living, communication, self-regulation, and social skills promote overall success. It is also vital that these skills be performed in the greater community and in situations where they will need to be executed. According to Laura Klinger (2015), “Researchers tracking children with autism into middle adulthood have found that the single most important predictor of success is the mastery of self-care skills.”
Teaching self-care skills, including toileting/menstrual care, daily hygiene, and dressing is vital for independence. As an example, dressing can be taught in the home, and as part of a routine prior to changing for exercise at school. This skill can then be transferred to the community when dressing after swimming at a community pool, eliminating the need for direct assistance.
Daily living skills are also essential toward broader independence. Examples of these include: making a snack, taking out the trash, doing laundry, or vacuuming. Teaching daily living skills promotes personal choice for the student in addition to developing skills that are transferrable to employment activities. Being able to perform these activities increases the opportunity for independent living and social interaction. As an example, learning to make a snack in school can transfer to making popcorn for the family at home. This can lead to developing the skills required to fulfill an essential need as an adult: independent meal preparation.
Interacting with the community is an important and challenging skill for many individuals with autism. Community-based instruction (CBI) teaches skills that lead to greater independence and a higher quality of life for the student by enabling them to successfully navigate community trips and activities. Peter Gerhardt (2011) stated, “Everybody deserves to be included. But I think what we have to do is not just continue to educate people with autism in how to be more social, but we need to educate the community about how to be social with people with autism.”
CBI helps children with autism widen their world. It enhances family life and prepares the student to function successfully in an environment beyond home or school. Embedded within CBI lies the continued development of communication, social skills and appropriate self-regulation of behavior. Performing community activities such as grocery shopping requires communication skills to achieve the correct purchase, social skills to wait in line and interact with the cashier at the check-out, and socially appropriate behavior throughout the interaction. These skills are critical for student success. They must be taught, learned and practiced in a variety of environments and natural situations.
Establishing an early foundation of skills is crucial for children living with autism. Early success in the areas of self-care, daily living, community-based instruction, communication and social skills will offer a replacement to the potentiality of challenging behaviors grounded in frustration. When adolescence arrives and puberty begins, it is important that children with ASD have mastered skills as part of their repertoire to help them navigate more successfully through the transition to adulthood.
Lois Trusler, BSW, is Employment Training and Transition Coordinator, and Todd Harris, PhD, is Executive Director, Autism Services at Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health. Please contact Lois with any questions or comments regarding this article at (610) 873 4933 or ltrusler@Devereux.org or visit www.devereux.org.
Gerhardt, P. (April 22, 2011). Autism Now Extended Interview. Interview hosted by Robert MacNeil, PBS Newshour.
Harris, T.A., & Trusler, L. (September, 2012). Teaching community skills to individuals with autism. Presentation at the Legacy of Care Conference, Framingham, MA.
Klinger, L. (2015). Autism Study Associates Self-Care Skills with Success in Adulthood, Retrieved from Autism Speaks (https://www.autismspeaks.org/science/science-news/autism-study-associates-self-care-skills-success-adulthood).
Lundine, V. & Smith, C. (2006), Career Training and Personal Planning for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders. A Practical Resource for Schools Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
National Standards Project Phase 2, (2015). Addressing the Need for Evidence-Based Practice Guidelines For Autism Spectrum Disorder. Randolph MA: National Autism Center.