How to Help Your ASD Child Navigate Through Life

I find that a large portion of my day is spent running on auto-pilot. I don’t really think about getting dressed, taking a shower, feeding the cat, driving to work, and so on.  I react to what I encounter in my environment almost instinctively, nailed down by habit, and granted … all of it seems pretty easy and straightforward.

However, it wasn’t until I started working with adolescents and young adults on the “ASD and LD Spectrum” who experience “Executive Function” difficulties that I realized this isn’t the case for everyone.


Working with my students forced me to break tasks down into their most basic parts, and make myself explain things with the most precise explanations I could come up with. Against my will, it made me take an introspective look into my own way of doing things to figure out how exactly that all comes together.

I don’t have to think about how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. But…if I were to explain it to someone who had never made one (and yes, this is a true story!), this is what I would say:

  1. Find a store that has the ingredients you need
  2. Find a way to get there
  3. Purchase peanut butter, jelly, and bread
  4. Bring the items back to your home
  5. Clear a space to work on making the sandwich in your kitchen
  6. Clean the space if dirty
  7. Open the bread
  8. Take two slices out
  9. Tie up the bread so it doesn’t go stale and put away
  10. Open the peanut butter
  11. Remove the protective seal on the peanut butter with your fingernails
  12. Take your knife and put peanut butter on it
  13. Spread the peanut butter on one side of one piece of bread
  14. Repeat steps 12 and 13 until peanut butter is completely covering the bread, though not too close to the edge
  15. Put the lid back on the peanut butter
  16. Put the peanut butter away
  17. Clean off your knife with a paper towel
  18. Dispose of the paper towel in the trash can
  19. Open the jelly
  20. Take your knife and put jelly on it
  21. Spread the jelly on one side of one piece of bread
  22. Repeat steps 20 and 21 until jelly is completely covering the bread, though not too close to the edge.
  23. Put the lid on the jelly
  24. Put the jelly away
  25. Rinse your knife
  26. Put the knife in the dishwasher
  27. Take the slice with jelly and turn over onto the piece with peanut butter so that the jelly and peanut butter are touching.

Oh! And one more thing…eat the sandwich and enjoy it!

Broken down, I can count 27 steps to ending up with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, with some cleaning up in between, from start to finish.

I decided early on in my job that this is how I need to see every-day living tasks, as I rarely have a student who does not have trouble somewhere along the way.

I’ve witnessed very bright students:

  • unable to locate items in a store
  • unable to open a jar
  • wipe up a mess with their t-shirt
  • dispose of garbage on the floor instead of a trash can
  • eat moldy bread or undercooked meat
  • pour laundry detergent in the dishwasher
  • clean sinks with a toilet brush
  • spray themselves with air freshener in place of taking a shower
  • using bleach-type cleaning wipes as toilet paper

I can think of a hundred times where I might have said to myself, “Surely, Tom, Sarah, Michael, Matthew, Todd, Lisa, and Annie etc., know how to do that properly.” And often they don’t, so I intervene, break the task down, and tell them the missing steps that no one has told them or shown them before (or maybe just not enough times).

And then I try to understand their thinking. And believe it or not, a lot of times, it sort of makes sense. “If disinfectant wipes are good for cleaning countertops, they’re probably especially good for cleaning my body!” Or, “I’m out of dish soap, but these laundry pods looks pretty similar and clean my clothes well, so I’m sure they’ll do the dishes in the dishwasher just fine!”

Well, what I think is that when it comes down to it, there is a really lengthy “Hidden Curriculum” when it comes to life skills. And it’s chock full of unspoken rules and subtleties that can be difficult for students “on the spectrum” to navigate.

Some people are probably reading this story and thinking that the person who can’t make a peanut butter and jelly is just being lazy, or not trying hard enough. However, I cannot stress enough times to all the readers of this book … how wrong this is.

If making a sandwich from start to finish is 27 steps, imagine how many steps they have to go through in a day (thousands? tens of thousands?) to do other tasks that we (who are not “on the spectrum”) do mostly on “auto pilot.”

For myself, many (although not all) of them are done without a second thought, but for students struggling with “Executive Function” difficulties each one of these steps might as well be a trial, judge, and jury. And I watch daily, how “frustrating” doing simple daily living tasks can be for these young men and women.

They may be challenged with something that, to all outward appearances, seems easy and common-sense to most people. But what a lot of us (as educators and support personnel), fail to realize is that having to struggle with routine, rote, or simple daily living skills often creates feelings of shame and great failure to those trying to live on their own.

So…for these amazing young men and women, I will continue to fill in the missing gaps, help them practice the small things, and remind them endlessly of what they need to do each day, and I will do this with compassion on my side. I will help them as constructively as I can, and I will celebrate their small victories, and remind them of my own struggles and successes.

I may even tell them that doing laundry isn’t my favorite thing, and this is how I make it bearable: I play music and dance in between. I also throw garbage in the trash like it’s a basketball hoop. I tenderize my chicken with a mallet and pretend to be a super villain. The stain in my toilet bowl is an enemy and I must conquer it with a vengeance!

I will tell them (if they can) to keep things light-hearted. And then…I will give each person clear directions and feedback, and cheer when the job is done.  And…I will not assume anything!

To you – it may only look like, smell, and taste like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich – but to me, it looks, smells, and tastes like victory.

This article was featured in Issue 37 – Making Educational Strides

Oriane Robison

Oriane Robison serves as the Residential Coordinator for CIP Bloomington "" CIP is a national post secondary program which supports young adults with Asperger's, High Functioning Autism, ADHD and other Learning Differences as they transition to college and careers. This article was adapted from Chapter 6: Competency 4 – Skills for Independent Living, Autism and Learning Differences (An Active Learning Teaching Toolkit), by Michael P. McManmon Ed.D., to be published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London, October, 2015.

  • Avatar joann tucker says:

    Reading this article has brought everything home to me. My daughter will be 11 in December, she has Aspergers, ADHD, anivety and sensory disorder. I am realizing that she needs things to be written down in small steps in order for her to accomplish things that we all take for granted. She is very smart, it is the so called common sense things that give her so much trouble. Her diagnoses just came this year in June, so I am doing my best to learn all I can to help her navagate thru this world. Thank you for this article, hope to see more.

  • Avatar Christine Mary says:

    I am grateful to be reminded this scheme of decomposing actions
    As even if one knows it it is difficult to beat it in mind in the everyday life when you have to rush and run all over….
    Thanks again

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