They say childhood is fleeting, and it’s true. Just five months ago, my son turned 18. I still can’t believe it.
Contrary to what our kids often think, they usually don’t leave the family home or stop having to listen to us the very second they enter adulthood. The reality is, independence doesn’t always mean living on their own.
With the addition of autism, life skills become even more of a concern as we allow our kids more independence. No matter what their skill level, the more they can do for themselves, the better off they will be. We may not worry any less, but we can prepare them as best we can.
Changing our thinking
We need to change the way we think of our kids’ abilities. If we think in terms of empowering rather than controlling, we will be able to teach life skills, and foster learning life skills.
Building relationships with our kids is the foundation for their future independence. If we expect them to master certain skills at a specific time, and they don’t, how we handle that will make or break that relationship.
We can help our kids best when we break the mold society sets for what age life skills are expected to be mastered, and teach life skills through relationships. Changing our expectations will free us to really concentrate on building their self-worth, avoiding unsafe situations, and plan ahead for what will come.
In a recent interview with Maisie Soetanyo of Autism Career Pathways, Maisie recommended starting at a young age with our kids, building their life skills by fostering their autonomy early. Autism spectrum disorder, and its possible comorbidities, presents challenges to everyday life which often can be tackled early. It is important for our children with autism to be building their self care skills, gaining confidence in their abilities, and learning life skills that are personalized to them.
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Here is the thing, it’s not just about teaching life skills, it’s about teaching why the life skills are relevant to their life now and in the future. Support is the goal, not merely instruction. The most important life skills are the ones they learn to manage in correlation with their own life, not just performing daily tasks.
This could also mean teaching basic life skills later in life, and other skills earlier. In a lot of ways this entails providing personalized support, based on child-led parenting. That is the opposite of traditional parenting practices which most of us were raised with, and expected to enforce.
Let’s take a look at some essential life skills and how we can help our children practice them from a young age forward.
Functional life skills
Of course, we want our children to thrive, not just survive. To do this, we have to take into consideration where our child is on their life timeline, meeting them where they are, and helping them plan for their future. I believe this starts with self care.
Helping children learn life skills begins with teaching them about themselves. Showing them how valuable they are in this world, and inspiring them to own it. This will be the base for everything they do moving forward.
Self care is the foundation of the first basic skills they need, and often the earliest tasks they learn to master. Here are some of them:
- washing face
- brushing teeth
- changing clothes
- identifying needs: sensory, physical, mental
- managing emotions
- communicating effectively
As we are teaching these skills, it’s important to show our kids why they are necessary. It may seem obvious, but I know for me as a parent I often get caught up in just making sure these things are done. If I am focussed on a check list, I forget to teach the “whys”.
For example, the reason for brushing teeth is about the future health of their teeth, yes, but that importance hinges on their value as human beings. We don’t want them to be in pain, because we love them.
These are the building blocks that form a foundation for independence. As they identify their needs, they can learn their own coping skills, and when to employ them. skills such as:
- taking a break
- relaxation routines
- self soothing techniques
- visual supports
Self care, and the “why’s” build their self esteem which boosts their abilities to connect with others, and advocate for themselves when necessary.
We know that connecting with others is a skill that is extremely vital to life. The relationships built with family members and friends are a huge support. Autism can make this challenging.
We can help our kids on the autism spectrum learn how to communicate in their own way while they are young, with teachers, doctors, family, and friends. This means advocating for them, supporting them, and translating for them when necessary. Instead of making them feel that they have to adapt to the world, show them ways to help them communicate with the world on their own terms.
Providing lots of interaction practice can be done through regular visits with friends both in person and virtually. Allowing them to dictate the amount of time, the person they wish to connect with, and their chosen medium is important.
This is a skill they will have to utilize throughout their life as they interact with the world as adults. Using their autonomy when they are young as much as possible, teaches them to manage their sensory needs, mental health, and interaction with others now and in the future.
Advocacy either reinforces our child’s self care, or makes them doubt it. Every time someone advocates for our child, they see their value layed out.
Advocating for our children
When we advocate for our child, we say to them, “You are valuable, you do not always have to adapt to the world, you are worth the world adapting to you.” It teaches our child that, though challenging at times, their autism can be a superpower.
Autism is a different way of seeing. If our children value themselves, and what autism brings to their life, they will learn how to problem solve instead of conforming.
If our child has been supported, and the life skills of valuing themselves and self care have been imparted, they will be empowered to advocate for themselves. In doing so, their social skills will come into play. They will know better how to negotiate for the needs they have identified, and they will stand up for themselves more effectively.
Enlisting the help of a team
When our children have learned the skills of self care and social skills, they will learn how to enlist others for help. This valuable life skill will influence all others as they move into their future, identifying their needs and advocating for themselves and others.
Executive functioning skills
Our child’s specific struggles with executive functioning skills are important to manage. Learning organizational skills, being on time, completing tasks, and money skills are daily living skills our children will need through their adult life.
These challenges can be met through therapies, games, praising their out of the box approach to tasks, and taking steps that may not seem important or relevant at the time, but builds skills for future use.
For example, money skills can be learned through allowing our kids to see us pay bills every month, and participate at an age-appropriate level. Usually, we reserve that for later, but why does it have to be on that timeline? Exposing our children to the daily routine we ourselves keep to, makes our children aware and comfortable with the needed skills; even before it becomes their responsibility.
The skills needed for the job market are the same as the skills needed at home, at their core. Keeping this in mind as we teach our littles is key.
Utilizing the good traits common to autism like rigid thinking, a love for order and predictability, special interests, enjoying one’s own company more than that of others, and seeing the world differently, can all come into play in the workforce.
The aforementioned problem solving can come in handy for finding and keeping a job. As well as executive functioning skills of course. Planning for eventualities such as common illnesses, paying bills, transportation, and finding help can be learned in childhood.
One tip is to utilize things like public transportation regularly with our little ones (even if we have a perfectly good car), so that, if it is something they need as adults, it will already be familiar to them.
If we expect our children to learn practical living skills, this must start with valuing themselves and others. If we create a supportive environment, as our kids grow into adulthood, they will know how to find whatever they need from what is around them.
Family relationships set the tone for making friends. Social skills help them reach out to have their needs met effectively. Building coping strategies helps them not shut down, which keeps the lines of communication open between them and others.
Focusing on how to teach skills in the present, while keeping the future’s needs in mind helps build a great foundation. Though autism presents complications, the flipside of many of them is a strength. We may never be ready for our child living independently, but we can help them be ready before it’s time.