Anita Bhaskaran, Aarambh

Contrary to the popular belief that life skill training begins when the child in the house becomes a teenager, I believe that it begins from a very early, probably 3 or 4 yrs, of age. And this holds true for even children with Autism. I do understand, when the child is or was that age, you would be new to the diagnosis. And too emotional to think about life skills! You would just want the child to attend all the therapies and become “OK”. But it would be ideal to get into the routine of intervention and giving opportunities to child towards independence in living skills. 

Giving household work opportunities to the children is one of my oft-suggested ideas to many who come to meet me at school. Few parents listen to it but on most occasions it’s heard and shelved for later use. They come back with the same queries few years later when their boy or girl is older and well settled into the routine of getting things done from others! 

It is important to make the child with autism a part of the house routine. It is important for everyone to understand the strengths and difficulties of the child. It is important for the child to be alert to the routines and changes in the house and the impact he or she can make. Alertness is a learnt skill. It is an appropriate  response to a known or new stimuli.

In Indian households in cities, children mostly do not participate in the general upkeep of the house; they do not participate in the purchases or in the maintenance work. This alienation from work is more so for persons with disability. There is constant work undertaken to “rectify” their “defects” and make them “normal” children. And in this venture, most of the time we forget that making children part of the household routines make them aligned to life or “normalcy”. It makes them an active member of the house; it makes them comprehend the routine of living in the community; it makes them learn functional skills, which effectively uses their time at home and outside with learning opportunities. 

What are Functional Skills / Life Skills?

Functional skills are nothing but essential skills in language, numeracy and motor that helps us to be independent in the home environment and at the community level. These skills are vital in making the person successfully participate in life, which involves learning and work. It also basically focuses on problem solving with the use of language, math and our current level motor skills. When a person gains independence in both the environments, we would call this person a productive member of the society. Of course, every child/adult becomes independent in each of the environment at different stages in their lives. It also depends on what, when and how the person was exposed to different problem solving experiences.

The same outlook holds true for a person with Autism. The time and effort taken to achieve it is relative, but the important thought to hold on to is — something is always possible. The successful inclusion depends on the opportunities given at the right time. Although an important aspect to keep in mind as stated earlier is the presence of individual differences in every living organism. These differences open up a unique path for everyone and make each one’s destination unique.

So far, if you have noticed I have never stated that there is a difference in life goals for “normal” people and persons with Autism. The ultimate aim for all is Independence – in self care; in mobility; in earning; in travelling etc. The only difference is in understanding how much independence is possible; in which of the areas is it possible; and how can it be attained. 

Many of us attain independence in the basic life skills such as sitting, standing, holding objects and using it appropriately, feeding, *self toileting, stating choices and requesting etc at an early age. But there are many of us who are born with factors that can delay the gaining of these skills or sometimes not attain some of these skills without support mechanisms – human or alternative aids. Use of alternative and augmentative aids (AAC) to enhance communication or other skills is a good practice to gain independence.

In my work with people with Autism, I have seen some who have exceptional abilities and many who are yet to discover their true potential. Some are mathematically tuned; some are literary genius; some are musically oriented and many are highly tech savvy. But one common aspect observed is that most are dependent on their care giver on basic tasks – *self toileting, feeding, dressing and grooming, cleaning, washing, leisure etc. I do understand some aspects which deals with money, time and travel are difficult goals to attain. But if there is potential to learn and the will to teach, it is always possible. But as stated earlier – individual differences have to be kept in mind while framing a goal for your child. 

Life beyond the classroom (also an excellent book by Paul Wehman) teaches the life skills necessary for living. Some of the important skills that help us in living an independent life are:

Communication Skill: It is a well documented fact that almost 50% of the population diagnosed with Autism is non-verbal and many who are verbal do not have extensive verbal skills. Interpersonal communication is one of the most important learning skills to be targeted. This forms the baseline for all learning. There are multiple ways (some empirically proved methods and some creative solutions that work for many others) to improve the expressive skill. Finding your child’s potential communication channel would pave the way for supporting independent life. You will find various articles and research documents on alternative ways to promote communication. Success in the communication system ensures that the person with autism can try to manage family, friends, discomfort in routine or new activities, behaviors that would affect self and people around, 

Organizational Skill: Most curricular activities, classroom activities or even therapy activities focus on matching, associated matching, sorting (according to size, shape, colour, gender etc), sequencing, categorizing etc as a table-top activity. The activities at home that can augment organization skill are – sorting, matching and association with daily used objects and people. Most of the work at home involves this understanding and all the adults at home (those who perform household task) will agree to this. Just think how you can involve your child in this and keep him or her occupied and of course, make him or her future ready

Problem solving Skill: Many children with autism like to play with puzzles and sometimes show exceptional skills in solving puzzles. But these skills do not necessarily help in solving problems in life. I have tried to list out the regular activities at home. There may be some activities that are not applicable to some homes or families. But most of these activities help in independent living. 

Most children with Autism, perform well with structure or schedule which would give them an idea on the number of activities and completion of the task. Analyzing or breaking a complex task into small achievable goals will be a motivating idea. With a structured approach the child would be comfortable in learning and mastering each goal.

Thus some of the jobs that make us independent in our lives are: 

  1. Self care – This involves brushing, toileting, bathing, eating, dressing, grooming, independent sleeping etc. This is the primary requirement for any child or person to learn. This has to be taught systematically taking one or few reachable goals. 
  2. Cooking — In our culture, making  food is a lengthy process. But there are some easy to cook food in all cultures and homes that can be taught systematically. If the child shows interest to pursue the learning, it can be encouraged. The safety aspects should also be taught as a routing. As the child grows, make sure to include unstructured elements to cooking as it would teach the child to cope with unexpected situations. They would learn to understand the missing in elements in food — colour, taste, or smell – and find the ingredient that can solve the problem.
  3. Home care – there are different aspect to home care – floor cleaning; furniture dusting; making the bed; cleaning table etc
  4. Washing clothes– hand wash or washing machine depending on the home situation the child should from a young age be part of collection, segregation and washing procedures.
  5. Allocation of items in the refrigerator. This can be a great beginners program – sorting vegetables, fruits; packing them and placing them appropriately. 
  6. Learning of Time and Money: Introduction to transaction skill in association to time and money can add value to learning other concepts. You do have to consider age and maturity before introducing this concept.

These are some of the few activities that will make your child a productive member of your family (like everyone else). I am sure all of you can come up with many activities at home that would be interesting to your child (apart from laptop, mobiles, ipad, video games, tv etc). 

The presence of individual differences makes every child or young adult learn at a different pace. The learning style of the person needs to be considered before the teaching begins. Learn to look at your child’s learning potential and requirement at each stage to successfully reach the next level of learning. Generalization of learnt skills can make the person ready for new people and environment.