Perkins School for the Blind Transition Center

The Education of Real Life

As parents of children with autism, we continually search for the answer to the question, “What does my child need in order to reach his or her potential in life?” Our children’s potential is greatly determined by the quality of education they receive. Education for our children takes place not only through the efforts of teachers and therapists, but also through experiences at home and in the community. Life is filled with learning opportunities, in all environments in which our children participate. The most significant aspect of parenting for us to consider is the role we parents take in orchestrating an education for our children that uses learning opportunities in the school, home and community.

The ideal educational approach for our children with autism relies on professionals and parents working together and consistently toward a whole life education. Ideally, this begins with the use of teaching strategies that are proven effective for learners with autism (see the gray box at the end of the article for resources). For most useful results, relevant goals are identified by both teachers and parents as those needed in the school, home and community. These goals should be taught to our children systematically using effective teaching strategies that consider our children’s own particular learning needs, rely on their strengths and abilities, and incorporate effective motivation. Subsequent teaching plans should enable teachers and parents to help our children use their learned skills in increasingly independent ways in all environments.

The more we parents understand how our children learn, plus the better we grasp the proven-effective teaching strategies, the more empowered we are to give our children what they need to reach their potential through a whole life education. By educating ourselves as parents:

We can advocate for our educators and therapists to accommodate our children’s needs. Scientific studies provide proof about the effectiveness of treatment and teaching methods for children with autism. Studies are powerful tools we can use in our endeavor to obtain truly effective services. Our children deserve treatments that are shown to be effective. We need to appreciate how proper teaching works for individuals with autism and we need to speak knowledgably and confidently about our children’s own particular needs. The more capably we can equate proven teaching methods to our children’s individual needs, the more successfully we can advocate for quality services.

We can collaborate with teachers and therapists in the teaching process to promote the carryover of skills. Through on-going collaboration with our children’s educators, we develop a framework in which our children’s relevant evolving real life needs are identified, directly taught, and are then taught to be used in various environments. Through this collaboration, educators help us parents enable our children to apply their learned skills in a very real way in the real world. For example, the ability to “wait” can be applied when waiting for the teacher’s next assignment, waiting on line for school cafeteria food, waiting for dinner at home, waiting alongside mom while she chats with a neighbor, “waiting” throughout a religious service. An equally important component of collaboration is our ability as parents to identify to the educators those “real life” needs that are significant in our family life, so that plans may be developed to teach to those needs. Due to the structure and other variables that differ between home/community life vs. school, educators may not be aware of some of the issues that exist for families. Collaboration should involve: informing educators about the needs that exist in our family life; discussing how we can hope to use skills that educators are teaching our children; sharing materials and methods when appropriate; and keeping our educators aware of progress and informing them when generalization does not occur. On-going collaboration provides the opportunity for us parents to enable our children’s education to target very relevant real-life goals as they evolve and are shaped throughout stages of life.

We can incorporate effective teaching strategies into our parenting approach. In addition to implementing the educators’ plans for skills they teach, we can also consider a lifestyle approach of parenting our children more effectively. We can parent more proactively and more successfully by stating our expectations clearly beforehand in a way our children understand best, and by helping and motivating our children to meet our expectations. Without conscious planning, it is easy to habitually “hover and help” our children, which can create prompt dependent and stifle autonomy. If we understand effective parenting (teaching) strategies and motivational approaches, we can enable our children to perform skills and complete tasks to their greatest degree of independence.

We can apply the same parenting approach in various settings in the community. We can teach our children to use their skills in more and more situations and environments in greater ways and with increasing independence. We can solicit the efforts of members of society. When we are in the market, there are available employees with whom our children may interact: clerks at stores, librarians, waitresses, children at the bus stop, friendly families at our religious services and other community engagements. These are all people who can help our children interact more meaningfully and successfully in society, if we parents facilitate our children’s ability. It is a productive parenting process that is borne from a pattern of successes between ourselves and our children, beginning in the home and familiar environments, then expanding into other environments, involving members of the community as needed. It’s a brilliant recipe to successfully enable our children to interact meaningfully with the people and places in their lives.

Assessing our children’s needs, teaching to them, motivating them, systematically furthering them based on a pattern of successes, coordinating our efforts with those of the educators, teaching our children to use their skills in various settings, involving other people when possible, giving the support our children need in order to function to their greatest degree of independence by fading our help as parents and enabling our children to become their most capable self. Those are our goals as parents. That’s what we want for all our children, not just those with autism. The be-all and end-all is the approach we use to lead our children there. It requires planning and forethought. It’s a systematic process that begins with our very first successful interaction and builds from there. Their future begins today. Once we find the pattern, we can take the systematic steps to apply it as needed, orchestrating a “whole-life” education for our children with autism.

Marianne Clancy is the parent of a teenager with autism. She is president of the Autism AIMS LLC – – and a board member of the Association for Science in Autism Treatment –

Have a Comment?