After the dust had settled around our son’s disgnosis of autism spectrum disorder I found myself with a whole new set of worries and concerns about his future. I know that mother’s of neurotypical children worry but personally once the weight of the diagnosis really sunk in I realized that my worries had changed so much.
What will his adult life look like? What does this mean for everyday life? Will he be able to live an independent life after high school or college? What is his level of independence going to look like? Will I get to dance with him at his wedding? Will the world try and take advantage of him? And in light of all of these concerns what can I do to help?
Even before my amazing little boy came spinning and jumping into this world my husband and I knew that we were called to homeschool any children that the Lord blessed us with. Since our son’s diagnosis our resolve for homeschooling has only been strengthened. There are so many reasons for this but one of which is that we have such a beautiful opportunity to make sure that independent living skills are an integral part of our homeschool. This does not require any expensive curriculum but it does require working intentionally with our children, both neurodivergent and neurotypical, on functional skills that will serve them well in adulthood.
Essential Independent Living Skills
Have you seen this meme on social media?
To me this meme is the perfect illustration of why independent living skills are vitally important for ALL children.
Of course, for our autistic children these essential life skills may be even more important to help them grow into successful young adults and live life to their fullest potential.
Essential Independent Living Skills
This is a list of some of the most essential independent living skills that our family focuses on teaching to all of our children.
Basic cooking is one of the many necessary skills that everyone should have the opportunity to learn. Understanding the basics of nutrition, grocery shopping, and food preparation are essential skills that we should teach to both the autistic child and the neurotypical child.
In our home that looks like age-appropriate activities around the kitchen. Even young children can help gather ingredients, stir or mix, and depending on their age and ability a child can help with reading a recipe or chopping vegetables. As the child becomes more skilled you can introduce new techniques or skills. Children can assist with meal planning, making a grocery list, and shopping for food.
It’s also important to discuss kitchen safety which begins with redirecting your toddler away from the hot stove over and over again.
Basic Cleaning & Organizing
One of the most important skills for independent living that often gets overlooked is basic cleaning and organizational skills. This is one of those basic daily living skills that I feel like I talk about a lot in my Instagram DM’s. I can say with absolute certainty that it is not only autistic people who are lacking this skill. Far from it.
Learning to keep a clean home is an important part of maintaining a healthy environment. Regular cleaning and organization help prevent the buildup of dust, dirt, and allergens, creating a healthier living space. This is especially important for individuals with allergies or respiratory conditions. A clean home can also help to reduce stress and anxiety which is particularly important for our autistic children.
We teach this skill by including household chores as part of our daily routines. For example, when we finish eating a meal at the table the children carry their plates and place them in the sink. Those small steps add up over time. As your child grows and gains skills what was once daily tasks of putting laundry in the hamper can slowly over time evolve into your child doing their own laundry. These are functional life skills that promote independence and benefit all of your family members.
Personal Care & Hygiene
Personal care is an important life skill because it encompasses a range of self-care activities that are essential for maintaining physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Some examples of this would be physical health such as dental hygiene and skin care, mental health such as self-esteem and confidence, and emotional health such as self-respect.
This is a broad topic and something that is an ongoing learning process. While you may master the art of brushing your teeth it still has to be done daily. And there are plenty of adults well into retirement age who have not learned the skills to take care of their mental and emotional well-being.
Personal hygiene and similar self-care skills are things that are a part of our daily lives. Your child’s ability will determine which skills you focus on and for how long. I do not suggest trying to tackle everything at once but instead pick one skill that you will work on diligently for six weeks. At the end of six weeks you can decide whether to continue with that skill or to add an additional new skill.
I also want to encourage you to break down the skills into smaller steps. Maybe your child is not ready to learn the entire process of brushing their teeth. Can you start by having them turn on the faucet or put the toothpaste on the brush? Look at each micro step of the process and see where you can start to help them gain independence. If your child is not quite ready for brushing their hair on their own maybe you can start by having them retrieve the brush. In my experience, it’s always better to start very small and build up rather than risk overwhelming your child and opening the door to meltdowns and negative associations.
Basic First Aid
Another one of the important life skills to teach our children is basic first aid. If we want our children to live independent lives then we need to equip them with the knowledge of how to handle injuries and what to do in an emergency situation. Some, but not all, children with autism spectrum disorder experience pain with a higher intensity so it is important that they have the self-help skills necessary to maintain their personal safety.
Recognizing hazards and adhering to emergency protocols is crucial for all individuals, yet it carries even greater significance for those with ASD, who may lack the knowledge to manage potentially perilous circumstances. Providing explicit instruction regarding safety at home, during travel, fire safety, emergency response, and the avoidance of risky situations must be regularly emphasized and practiced.
In our home we do this by reading books, using social stories, with visual supports, and lots of practice in natural environments when we can. For example, I try to make it a point to talk about safety around cars every single time we cross a street or walk through a parking lot. I discuss expectations and safety concerns when we are in the car on our way to a location or event, again when we park at our destination, and even again as everyone is getting out of the car and loading into strollers.
Another way I try to use the natural environment and visual clues is by talking about firefighters any time we see a fire truck or talking about police officers any time we see a police car.
We want to teach our children how to recognize their own emotions, how to manage those emotions, and how to empathize with others.
There are so many reasons why emotional intelligence is an important life skill. Having emotional intelligence is one of the best ways to take care of your own mental health and well-being. It also helps you with family relationships, social relationships, and even adaptability.
Like many of the other independent living skills I have talked about this is not something that you can master and then check off of your to-do list. Gaining emotional intelligence is a long journey and requires a lot of self-awareness. For very young children that might start with talking about our feelings (“You are really mad right now.”) or learning appropriate ways to treat others (“Hands are not for hitting.”). As our children get older and their emotions get bigger the concepts and lessons will grow as well.
Healthy communication skills are so important in order to maintain healthy relationships. I do however want to be clear in what I mean by healthy communication skills.
Communication skills refer to a set of abilities and competencies that enable individuals to convey, receive, and understand information effectively in various interpersonal, social, and professional contexts. These skills encompass both verbal and non-verbal communication and are crucial for successful interactions and relationships.
What I do not mean by communication skills is a requirement to maintain eye contact or sit perfectly still for any specific length of time. Those things are not a requirement for having a healthy, meaningful, and valuable conversation.
Part of teaching healthy communication skills in our home includes things like: listening to understand rather than listening to respond, not interrupting, being able to clarify someone’s meaning to ensure you fully understand, and being able to use word/pictures/signs in order to clearly deliver a message. We also believe and respect that all behavior is valid communication. Communication is so much more than words. Even if your are verbal… or maybe especially if you are verbal.
Executive Functioning Skills
Executive functioning skills are a set of cognitive processes that help individuals manage and regulate their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in order to achieve goals, solve problems, and adapt to new situations. These skills are crucial for effective planning, organization, self-control, and decision-making.
Executive functioning is how we make plans, manage our time, resist distractions, break down a goal into steps, and stay on task. This is a skill that neurotypical people struggle with as well but can be especially challenging for those who are ADHD or autistic.
One way that we have begun to work on executive functioning skills is with visual aids. We take a complex task and break it down into manageable parts. Many neurodivergent people, including my son, are visual learners so the picture schedules are a huge help in building those skills. This could be taking something like the teeth brushing example from earlier in the blog post and showing each individual step of the process or it might look like breaking down the steps of the entire bedtime routine.
My goodness the amount of adults who do not have the first clue about how to create a budget let alone manage one is staggering. Financial literacy and money management is one of those basic skills that every single child or young adult could benefit from learning.
An exercise I love for older children is to have them go through brainstorming scenarios for their future. Find out what kind of career they might want to have and then together look up how much someone with that career can expect to make in a year. What does that translate to in a month? What city do you want to live in and what is the average rent there? What about utilities? Do you drive a car? If so, what kind of car do you drive so we can determine what your monthly payment is? You might also need to pay for parking depending on location. Work together using all of the information to write out a mock budget. This gives your child a realistic idea of what they can expect in the future.
You can also start smaller by having a child help you meal plan around a budget or allowing them to earn money that they then are responsible for saving and/or spending. There are several approaches and ways to get started but this is a skill that simply cannot be ignored.
Occupational skills range from broader skills such as being punctual and having regular attendance to more specific skills that relate directly to a desired career. These skills prepare children more meaningful work and helps them to reach their full potential.
One way that we incorporate occupational skills into our family is by including the children in volunteer opportunities at our church and participating in a homeschool co-op. Both examples require regular attendance and punctuality. Both scenarios also include social situations, working with others, following directions from a leader/teacher, and practicing our communication skills in new environments.
As our children get older we will learn how to apply and interview for a job as well as other occupational skills.
Autism Independent Living Skills
Independent living skills are vital for all children, but they hold particular significance for autistic children. These skills empower individuals with autism to lead more self-sufficient and fulfilling lives as they transition into adulthood.
While we do not have a crystal ball that tells us exactly what the future holds for our children we can take comfort in knowing that there are steps we can take now that will give them the best possible opportunities.
It is important to understand that autism is not a disease; it’s simply a different way of experiencing the world. Autism is a part of a person’s identity, and it’s not something negative or bad. It’s crucial to embrace neurodiversity and recognize that there is no “cure” for autism because it’s not an illness. Instead, our focus should be on supporting and respecting individuals with autism, celebrating their unique strengths, and helping create a more inclusive and understanding society. The information, tips, and advice on this website are based on my personal experience but no two children are the same. What works for our family may not work for yours. No material on this site is intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.