1. Autism
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Everyday skills for children with autism spectrum disorder

2-18 years

Your child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) might find some everyday activities difficult. It can help to break these tasks down into steps and teach each step in turn.

Helping your child with autism spectrum disorder learn how to do everyday tasks

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often have difficulty managing everyday tasks like getting dressed, brushing teeth, packing school bags and setting the table.

Tasks like these need the ability to plan and stay on task without getting distracted or needing reminders. This can be a challenge for many children with ASD, so they need some extra help and teaching.

You can help your child develop the skills for doing everyday tasks by:

  • breaking down tasks into small steps 
  • teaching the steps
  • 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 to learn how to do everyday tasks.

Teaching everyday skills to children with autism spectrum disorder

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 your child dressed in time is a challenge, you could focus on getting dressed. You might choose to start with putting on just one piece of clothing, like a jumper.

Step 2: break the task down
The second step is to look at the task and break it down into smaller parts.

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:

  1. Pick up jumper.
  2. Scrunch jumper.
  3. Lift over head.
  4. Put head through collar.
  5. Put one arm in sleeve.
  6. Put other arm in sleeve.
  7. Pull down jumper.

Here’s another example for brushing teeth:

  1. Pick up toothbrush.
  2. Put toothpaste on brush.
  3. Wet the brush.
  4. Brush teeth (spit). Repeat.
  5. Rinse mouth.
  6. Spit.
  7. 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 for herself.

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. If this is the case, you could teach getting dressed using t-shirts without buttons. Your child can still learn the steps in getting dressed, and you can introduce buttons later.

Help your child learn each step by:

  • making lots of opportunities to practise
  • rewarding every good attempt 
  • modelling, or showing your child what you want him to do – for example, brush your own teeth while your child watches so he can follow your example
  • prompting your child as much as he needs. 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.

Keep rewarding your child with praise and encouragement. For example, you can say ‘Well done!’, give your child a high five or a big hug, or put a sticker on your child’s reward chart.

Breaking down tasks into smaller and more manageable steps can help older children and teenagers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), who can find it hard to develop healthy hygiene habits – for example, dealing with periods or using deodorant. It can also help to model good practices and praise and encourage your child.

Forwards or backwards teaching?

You can teach the steps by moving:

  • forwards – teaching the first step, then the next step and so on
  • backwards – teaching the last step, then the second-last step and so on.

Take the example above of putting on a jumper. With backwards teaching, at first you would do steps 1-6 and your child would do step 7. Then each time you do a little less and your child does a little more, until she 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:

  • Often the most rewarding thing about a job or task is getting it finished.
  • There is more likely to be a natural reward for finishing the last step – for example, ‘I finished putting my shoes on, so I can play now’.

These natural rewards keep your child motivated and help him 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 – like picking up a jumper without help – there’s still a long way to go until the task is finished – that is, the jumper is on.

But there are no rules about when to use forwards or backwards teaching. Think about your child, the task and what might be easiest for her.

Take pictures of different steps in tasks and put them in handy places around the house. You can use the pictures with your child while you’re teaching him the steps in the task and also as a reminder once he has learned the task. You might like to read more about using visual schedules.

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Last updated or reviewed
10-03-2017

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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