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Foundational Strategies to Develop Independence

For individuals with a disability like autism, developing skills that foster independence is a critical part of one’s education. Yet, young adults looking to transition into adult life and their families may not know how to advance the process. Vista Life Innovations, a nonprofit along the Connecticut shoreline dedicated to providing individualized supports for neurodiverse adults, has identified several strategies to support personal success from its over thirty-year history. Using strategies like the identification of direct prompts, the development of alternative supportive tools and the use of engagement with the community can all play a role in fostering the independence and corresponding skillset of a young adult.

Crossing the street

Students from Vista utilizing their crosswalk safety training in the local community

Often, the first step towards the development of skills that foster independence is recognizing the direct prompts an individual is receiving on a regular basis. Direct prompts such as verbal reminders can be helpful, but it is important to reflect on if these prompts are preventing growth. Suzanne Gregory, Vista’s Admissions Manager, explains:

“Families often have established routines that incorporate prompts into their young adult’s life. During Vista’s admissions process, we ask about this because some families lose sight of how routinized prompts can be a hindrance to independence. For instance, I remember a family that assured me that their son was completely independent with getting dressed but overlooked that they selected and laid out his clothes every morning. Accordingly, their son had never thought about how to select his clothing or had the opportunity to choose his own outfit.”

For the family Suzanne references, selecting the clothing for their son was preventing an educational conversation about how to choose an outfit based on important factors like the weather and social expectations. These factors impact one’s safety out in the community (such as being warm enough in winter weather) and the ability to maintain paid employment (by matching a workplace dress code). Once a family recognizes the prompts that occur, it is possible to find alternatives to them.

The next step in developing skills is to identify support tools that can replace prompts, foster personal growth, and are a good fit for the individual. Advocating for these strategies in a student’s high school IEP can be a part of this future planning process. At Vista, students work with their team to find individualized systems to increase their independence in real life settings. A popular strategy is creating checklists for tasks like getting ready in the morning or being prepared for work. Often, a new support strategy will take more time to complete and is a collaborative effort between the student and the staff member. It allows “mistakes” to happen, but it is important to value these as a part of the learning process in a supportive setting. When choosing a support tool, it is important to select one that meets the individual’s specific needs. For example, James, a young adult enrolled in Vista’s Discover Program, struggles with short term memory. By working with staff, James learned to use cell phone reminders to complete tasks like laundry and planning his trips to work on public transportation. This system is great for James but would not be a good fit for everyone. For instance, Penny, a woman with autism who receives select services through Vista’s Engage Program while living independently, has a precise memory and easily remembers her schedule. If Penny was told to follow the same reminder system as James, it would be jarring, unnecessary, and ignore her individual ability. For those with an IEP, it is important to ensure that the IEP aligns with their particular strengths and areas to develop, and that it is adjusted as the student gains more independence.

One area of daily life that families may struggle to reimagine is medication management. While intimidating, it is possible to teach medication independence with training and supervision that fades as the student demonstrates that they can reliably complete parts of the process. At Vista, a staff member works with an individual student to teach what each of their specific medications do and why it is important to take them. Students also learn to identify their medications, the quantities and when they need to take them. Dylan, a Vista student with autism, describes:

“The biggest skill I am working on at Vista is medication management. My old program didn’t offer the same opportunities to become more independent with it. Here, I showed that I can take my medication independently because I know what it does. Then, I need to check in with a staff member to let them know that I’ve taken them. I’m proud that I’ve become this independent with my meds and I am working to become even more independent with them.”

Not only does medication training empower students, it also enhances their safety as students learn to advocate for themselves. Caroline, another Vista student, was once reviewing her medication with a staff member and noticed that one of her supplements was a different color than usual. With some support, Caroline called and politely asked her pharmacist if the pill was the correct one. In this case the supplement had simply changed colors, but Caroline’s awareness and self-advocacy will protect her from potential discrepancies in the future.

After taking the initial leap, it becomes clear that learning through real life experiences is a powerful way to develop independent living skills. The community is truly “the classroom” with individuals being able to learn skills like crosswalk safety, grocery shopping and banking by practicing in their local towns. At first, loved ones or staff can guide students through these real-world activities. If the individual becomes comfortable in a particular setting, it is important to test their skills in new environments. For example, someone may be completely at ease safely using the crosswalk on their street but lose confidence when in a less familiar area of town. By gaining independent living skills in different places, young adults become more comfortable, developing both their independence and a sense of belonging.

By routinely following these strategies, the need for prompts and direct support lessens. This is usually a gradual process where a young adult moves from receiving direct, one-to-one guidance to completing tasks by themselves. Warren, an individual with autism living independently along the shoreline, has been developing his growth steadily: “I work with a LSI [Vista Life Skills Instructor], but I am proud that I am slowly reducing the numbers of hours of support I receive. I can reduce my home hours because I have shown that I am good at cleaning, cooking, and speaking up for myself. I plan to keep building my independence and reducing my instructional hours.” In addition to reducing his home support hours, Warren has been able to become fully independent at work and no longer pays for job coach services. No matter where someone’s skillset begins, it is possible to teach independent living skills.

While strategies like these are meant to guide those on the path to independence, it is important to remember that the journey will not be a straight line – it will certainly involve getting out of one’s comfort zone, overcoming hurdles and embracing the concept of “seeing challenges as opportunities to grow.” It may not be easy, but the rewards of independence are worth it. We wish everyone support as they continue on their respective paths to greater independence!

Please note: The names of the referenced Vista students and members have been changed for privacy reasons.

Becky Lipnick is the Communications Lead at Vista Life Innovations. For over 30 years, Vista has supported individuals with disabilities achieve personal success. Learn more at www.VistaLifeInnovations.org or contact Becky at BLipnick@VistaLifeInnovations.org

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