Helping autistic children and teenagers learn everyday skills
Some everyday tasks and activities are complicated or need to happen in a sequence. These include tasks like getting dressed, brushing teeth, packing school bags and setting the table.
You can help autistic children and teenagers develop skills for doing tasks like these by:
- breaking down tasks into small steps
- teaching the steps one at a time
- helping when needed
- rewarding each small success along the way.
This technique is called step-by-step teaching or chaining.
An occupational therapist can help your child learn how to do everyday tasks.
Using step-by-step teaching for autistic children and teenagers
Step 1: choose an appropriate goal
The first step is to choose a goal that suits your child’s age and abilities.
For example, if getting dressed on time is a challenge for your child, you could focus on this task. You might choose to start with putting on just one piece of clothing, like a jumper.
Step 2: break down the task
The second step is to look at the task and break it into smaller parts.
For example, putting on a jumper might sound like one activity, but it’s actually a series of smaller steps. Each step leads on to the next:
- Pick up jumper.
- Scrunch jumper.
- Lift over head.
- Put head through collar.
- Put one arm in sleeve.
- Put other arm in sleeve.
- Pull down jumper.
Here’s another example for brushing teeth:
- Pick up toothbrush.
- Put toothpaste on brush.
- Wet brush.
- Brush teeth.
- Spit out leftover toothpaste.
- Rinse brush.
- Put toothbrush in holder.
Step 3: teach each step
The idea of step-by-step teaching is to teach one step at a time. When your child has learned the first step, you teach the next step, then the next. You keep going until your child can do the whole task.
Before you start, check whether any of the steps are too advanced for your child. For example, your child might not have the ability to do up buttons. In this situation, you could teach getting dressed by using t-shirts without buttons. Your child can still learn the steps in getting dressed, and you can introduce buttons later.
These tips can help as you teach each step:
- Make plenty of opportunities to practise.
- Reward every good attempt.
- Show your child what you want them to do. For example, brush your own teeth while your child watches so they can follow your example.
- Prompt your child as much as they need. For example, physically help your child to pick up the toothbrush. Then gradually cut back your help to gently moving your child’s hand near the toothbrush, then to just pointing to the toothbrush, and finally to providing no help or hint at all.
Breaking down tasks into smaller and more manageable steps can help older autistic children and teenagers who can find it hard to develop healthy hygiene habits – for example, dealing with periods, using deodorant, or learning how to shave.
Forwards or backwards teaching?
You can teach the steps by moving:
- backwards – teaching the last step, then the second-last step and so on
- forwards – teaching the first step, then the next step and so on.
Take the example above of putting on a jumper. With backwards teaching, at first you’d do steps 1-6 for your child and you’d teach your child to do step 7. Then each time you do a little less and your child learns to do a little more, until your child can do all the steps.
Most of the time, it’s better to teach the last step first. This is for a couple of reasons. First, often the most rewarding thing about a job or task is getting it finished. Second, there’s likely to be a natural reward for finishing the last step – for example, ‘I finished putting on my shoes, so I can play now’. These natural rewards keep your child motivated and help them develop the skill of planning to achieve a goal.
Forwards teaching can be useful for some things, like remembering a phone number. But with many tasks, even when your child is successful with the first step, there’s still a long way to go until the task is finished. For example, even when your child can pick up a jumper without help, there’s still a long way to go until the jumper is on.
But there are no rules about when to use forwards or backwards teaching. Think about your child, the task and the best approach.
Take pictures or videos of different steps in tasks, with you or your child doing each step. You can use these pictures or videos while you’re teaching your child the steps in the task and also as a reminder once they’ve learned the task. You might like to read more about using visual supports and video-modelling.