4 Tips for Teaching Life Skills at Home

How I nurtured my autistic son's interest in taking care of himself and his home.
L helping do laundry

Skills of daily living— like doing laundry, food prep and cooking, and self-care, to name a few— were things my 7-year-old autistic son worked on for years in therapy. Despite the fact that he had rigorous programming with multiple steps for everything from how to wash his hands to how to prepare an apple for a snack, his gains were fairly slow. I think a large part of this was due to the rigid structure of the tasks—for example, he might miss a step, have to redo that step, and then grow frustrated at having to backtrack.

It was not until we took a year off therapy (through a series of unexpected life events), that we really started to see his interest in taking care of himself and his home increase dramatically. Here's how we did it, and I think the same steps will help any child with special needs grow better at daily living skills.

Follow his or her interests.

My son has always loved coffee. Since he was a toddler, he's stolen sips of my husband's and my coffee, and he loves the smell and feel of unground beans. Slowly, this interest evolved into a desire to help with our morning coffee making. Now, every morning, he fills a pot with water and carries it to the stove. Then he helps me measure beans; we grind them together; we put them in the French press...and so on until the coffee is ready.

One reason I think he loves this ritual so much is because he's genuinely interested in the smell, feel, touch, and taste of coffee. Following this interest has allowed us to practice many life skills—not that making coffee is something everyone needs to know, but measuring, following instructions, and other parts of the process translate across contexts.

Expand slowly—don't push.

It's important to have high expectations for kids with special needs, but it's also important to let them develop in their own time. This is as true with teaching life skills as it is with everything else. So, certainly, it's great to start something like potty training or teaching a child to brush his or her teeth at age 3, but realize that the child will do the skill independently when she or he is ready. That may take months or years. Be patient, and expand her life skills slowly.

Teach your child small skills—washing his hair, using a washcloth—and then add on to these over time. Patience wins the race here because it will save you and your child a lot of heartache and frustration.

Make it meaningul work.

One thing that we've found to be really important is to make the work my son does more than just busy work. We don't practice sweeping, we actually sweep up messes. We don't sort using sorting toys, we sort laundry. We don't play with fake food, we actually make sandwiches. My son is quite literal-minded, so things like fake food were always frustrating, but the larger skill he was meant to learn—how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, for instance—has always interested him. So, that's the kind of work we do at home.

Give independent tasks eventually.

As he gets more comfortable with each skill, I slowly give my son more responsibility and independence. Instead of holding his hand while he loads the dishwasher, I now let him do it, one glass at a time. Because this is an organic move towards independence, rather than a forced march, we've even seen a lot of non-prompted, self-initiated skills in action. For example, if my son spills a glass of water, he grabs a rag to clean it up. Likewise, if he sees me doing laundry, he rushes over to help.

By following my son's interests, working at his pace, giving him meaningful work, and allowing for independence, we're saying to him: You can do this; the work you do matters to the running of our household; and you are an important member of our family.

Practicing daily living skills at home doesn't have to be a chore (even when you're doing chores!)— and it can be a great way to build a child with special need's self-esteem, prepare him or her for future independent living, and make your household run more smoothly. Wins on all fronts!

Jamie Pacton lives in the Pacific Northwest where she drinks loads of coffee, dreams of sailing, and enjoys each day with her husband and two sons. Find her at www.jamiepacton.com and Twitter @jamiepacton.

Image via Jamie Pacton

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