When working with youth and young adults on the autism spectrum, professionals and parents are often faced with the daunting task of teaching life skills. These skills can include grocery shopping, stranger awareness, everyday cleaning, and self-care. Youth and young adults often need to be taught to make small purchases, order off a menu, and navigate social situations with community members. Surprisingly, although frequently cited as important, there is currently no life skills program which is considered to be effective for teaching youth with high functioning autism spectrum disorders (Drahota, Wood, Sze, & Van Dyke, 2011). Parents and professionals instead must teach life skills without much guidance as to what works. In part due to the lack of knowledge as to what works and because it is often difficult, very frequently parents and professionals tend to do many life skills tasks themselves or they teach using the same strategies they use to teach academic subjects – worksheets and readings. While many skills can initially be taught using these methods at home and in the clinic, these skills need to be practiced where they are going to be used – in the community.
Why Teach Life Skills?
Life skills deficits are common in individuals with autism spectrum disorders due to both executive functioning deficits and social/communication skills deficits. Life skills for youth with autism spectrum disorders are extremely important as it is a strong contributor to overall prognosis (Gillham, Carter, Volkmar, & Sparrow, 2000). Independence in life skills is one of several factors that will help determine if the individual will be able to live on their own or need a more supportive living environment as they mature into adulthood. Young adults who rely on their parents often express a desire for independence and may be embarrassed about their own inability to complete various tasks. Even in childhood, there may be negative emotional effects to deficits in independent living skills. Children may become anxious because of their overreliance on their caregivers (Wood, 2006).
Many independent living skills are inherently social. For example, a task as simple as buying a soda at a convenience store may involve a multitude of social interactions. First, one has to enter the store which may or may not have other customers inside. Upon entering, one may be greeted by the store clerk or someone may be leaving or entering at the same time. If this occurs, does the young person on the autism spectrum know to hold the door open? What is an appropriate greeting for a store clerk? Are they considered a stranger? One then has to navigate around the other customers to find the soda they want to purchase. What if someone bumps into you? Are they intentionally causing harm? All of these social interactions have occurred and the soda has yet to be purchased.
Executive functioning deficits can also be a major obstacle to independent living. Executive functioning can be described as the CEO of your brain and controls tasks such as goal setting, planning, organization, flexibility, working memory and self-monitoring (Meltzer, 2007). Executive functioning skills in youth with autism spectrum disorders have been shown to be significantly linked to adaptive skills (Gilloty, Kenworthy, Sirian, Black & Wagner, 2002). If we return to our example of the individual purchasing a soda, we can see how executive functioning deficits may also impair the purchase. First, one must find the store and navigate the community to get there. They must also make sure they have enough money for the purchase and that they receive the correct change. These steps require planning, initiation, and organization. By practicing in the community, one is able to practice these skills in real time and in the real situation. Skills deficits may become more noticeable in the community; however this provides a great opportunity to assess and create new goals.
Why is Community-Based Learning Important?
Many pivotal social and life skills are learned in groups. However, it is important for youth and young adults with autism spectrum disorders to practice these skills outside the group setting. This assists in generalization of skills. It is also important for individuals on the autism spectrum to have supervised interaction and engagement with people they are not familiar with, as a facilitator or parent may not always be there to assist in interactions. When a parent or professional observes an individual in the community setting they are better able to identify where the individual on the spectrum is having difficulties. This allows for the creation of new goals and identifies areas of need. Most importantly, by allowing these opportunities for practice, the individual with an autism spectrum disorder is put on the path to becoming more self-sufficient.
Out and About with ASPIRE
The ASPIRE Center for Learning and Development’s “Out and About” community-based program is for children and young adults with ASD between the ages of 10-25. This program helps facilitate generalization of life skills as well as social skills by taking youth and young adults with autism spectrum disorders into the community. Trained facilitators provide small group support allowing for incidental teaching. Participants are able to learn while having fun and meeting new friends. Outings have been scheduled based on age ranges, including pre-teen, teen, and young adult. This summer we are scheduled have a variety of outings and events that will start off with our Annual Summer Kick-Off Barbeque for young adults and a cake-decorating contest for pre-teens and teens. Other outings will include movie night, bowling with friends, mini golf, and a mall outing for pre-teens and teens. These outings provide great opportunities for learning life skills while having fun!
Samara P. Tetenbaum, PhD is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Monica Arevalo, BS is an Extern in Mental Health Counseling at the ASPIRE Center for Learning and Development.
For more information please contact ASPIRE Center for Learning and Development at (631) 923-0923 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out our website at www.aspirecenterforlearning.com.