Teaching Life Skills for Independence

by Lori Ciccarelli-Stotko, MPS

All parents want independence for their children. I am no different. I desire for my son with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) to live independently with success; with much dedication and effort, he is doing just that.  However, we had to actively teach life skills to create his success for independence. We had to be intentional.

Some children have to be taught just about everything, which includes basic life skills, and sometimes it takes them longer to master some of the skills that we take for granted. It was a wake-up call for me when my now grown son was 11, walking through a parking lot and nearly hit by a car because he was oblivious to his surroundings, mesmerized by his own world. I decided then that I needed to focus on life skills if I was going to give my son tools for independence.

Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapy is not just for young kids with sensory issues.  The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) defines the practice of  occupational therapy as “the therapeutic use of occupations, including everyday life activities with individuals, groups, populations, or organizations to support participation, performance, and function in roles and situations in home, school, workplace, community, and other settings.”

Learning life skills was the objective for my son’s occupational therapist when he was a teen.  Our Occupational Therapist focused on tasks like:

  • washing his laundry,
  • basic cooking skills,
  • money & banking matters, and
  • chores around the house.

She also taught my son how to read the schedules and maps for the local public transportation system. This really paid off when he lived independently at college and didn’t drive.

Success didn’t happen over night, it took years of rote and repetition for it to stick.

 Speech Therapy

It’s important to make abstract concepts concrete for our kids. My son’s high school speech-language therapist used social games to help practice social-communicative skills like “Problem Solver” and “Communicate” games. These games helped teach pragmatics (social language) and reinforced social-communicative skills in typical situations for teens.

Recommended Resources

Back then, we used the Hidden Curriculum One-A-Day Calendar – items for understanding unstated rules in social situations created by Brenda Smith Myles.  Unfortunately, the calendar is no longer in publication.  However, many of the daily suggestions found in the calendar can be found in the book, The Hidden Curriculum and Other Everyday Challenges for Elementary-Age Children with High Functioning Autism.  

The suggestions found in this book helped make learning for “hidden curriculum items” a natural and painless part of every day life.  What is hidden curriculum? The author states, “it refers to unstated rules or customs that, if not understood, can make the world a confusing place and make us feel isolated…”  My son and I would read, discuss, and practice one a day.

Another resource we recommend is a book filled with exercises and worksheets titled Life Skills Activities for Secondary Students with Special Needs.  This book offers teachers and parents a unique collection of more than 200 worksheets to help adolescents with special needs build the life skills they need to achieve independence and succeed in everyday life. The book provides 22 complete teaching units focusing on basic life skills such as:

  • handling money,
  • succeeding at school,
  • using the Internet safely,
  • getting and keeping a job,
  • and much more

On a daily basis, I took advantage of every day life situations and turned them into learning opportunities. My adult son continues to learn life skills with the support of a safe environment. I highly encourage every parent and teacher to incorporate a life skills learning environment throughout the day to help kids with social cognitive deficit disorders achieve success for independence.


A version of this article was first published: special-ism.com