Teaching Basic Life Skills to your Special Needs Children

Lets face it. As a parent, you simply won’t be around for your child’s entire lifetime.  Sooner or later your child is going to have to become independent and the earlier you start teaching these skills, the better.

Unfortunately, many children with special needs, particularly those with Asperger’s Syndrome, don’t pick these life skills up automatically. Things which are automatic for other kids must be explicitly and repeatedly taught to them.

The Dangers of (S)mothering your Children
Many parents of children with special needs become so fixated on fulfilling their child’s needs that they forget to allow them room to do things by themselves – and more importantly to fail. We’ve all heard the expression “to learn from one’s mistakes” but for some reason, we’re afraid to allow our children to do this. This is a perfectly reasonable scenario where danger is involved but in safe situations, it’s simply wrong. Far from protecting our child’s fragile self-esteem, we are actually causing long-term independence and esteem issues by not allowing our kids to feel a sense of achievement when they succeed and we’re not teaching them anything about handling failure gracefully either.

It’s tempting to do everything for our special needs child and it’s hard to resist fixing their mistakes. How many mothers straighten or remake the bed after our kids have made them? How many fathers end up building their child’s models because they’re afraid of the poor quality of the finished product? This isn’t being helpful, it’s being overprotective, smothering and a perfectionist- and it’s not helping your children at all.

Getting down to the Detail
Neurotypical or “normal” children tend to pick up a lot of life skills simply by watching or interacting with others but many special needs children live in a world of their own. This is especially true of children with Asperger’s Syndrome who devote enormous amounts of mental activity to their special interest. You might think that your child is paying attention but if you could see into their mind, you might find that they’re thinking about Lego Star Wars figures instead. It’s little wonder that they don’t pick up much from simply watching you. They have to be taught skills – and taught explicitly.

Take brushing ones teeth for example; There’s actually quite a bit to the skill. The child has to make sure that they’ve finished eating and drinking for a while then get their toothbrush, wet it, put toothpaste on and then attempt to follow a pattern around their mouth to make sure that they get everything. Even the act of squeezing the toothpaste out has several components including a judgement of the amount to put out and the need to remember to put the lid back on. Finally, everything related to teeth brushing needs to be cleaned and put away.

All of these steps should be put in order on a whiteboard in the bathroom. As a parent, your primary focus should be to guide your child through the steps, ideally without prompting. You need your child to understand why they are brushing their teeth and what can happen if they don’t. It’s not just about teeth falling out or going to the dentist, it’s the social issues of bad breath and poor hygiene that they need to understand, particularly as they approach their teens.

Beyond the Detail
Your initial goal should be to get the child doing all of the steps to brush their teeth automatically.

  1. Procedure: One way to achieve this is to slowly wipe parts of the sentences off the whiteboard while still leaving enough for them to follow. Hopefully they’ll be following through the steps without the board eventually.
  2. Quality: Once you’ve got the steps happening, your next goal needs to be quality. You need to look at the way that their teeth are being cleaned and ensure that they are doing a good enough job. You should not attempt to correct on quality until the initial challenge of the procedure has been dealt with.
  3. Speed: Finally, once your child has mastered both the procedure and the quality, the last thing to work on is speed. You need to use a timer to find out how long it takes them to brush their teeth and then reduce the time by one minute every few days until they’re accomplishing the task in the time required. Note that by accomplish, we mean completed – not half done. If it takes your child one minute to put everything away, then you may need to remind them to stop brushing with one minute to spare.

There are many more life skills to cover such as bathing, shampooing, packing their school bags, putting on their uniform and buying things at the shops. You should avoid teaching several similar skills at the same time but they should all be taught in similar explicit ways. Every little detail must be covered.

This may seem tedious but independence is a quality which simply can’t be undervalued. It’s probably more important to your child than their academic studies and yet very few parents and schools actually teach it.

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About Gavin Bollard

Gavin is a dad who discovered that his own differences were due to Aspergers while researching his son’s diagnosis. His blog, Life with Aspergers, delves into the day-to-day details of Asperger's and related conditions while maintaining a focus on the positives.