When our challenged Aspergers (high functioning autistic) kids are young, it’s natural for parents to want to do things for them. Learning new skills is frustrating, and finding ones at the right developmental level is tricky. However, recognizing that Aspergers kids can never have any degree of independence if moms and dads don’t teach them to take care of themselves is an important step first toward showing your Aspie "the ropes."
For some Aspergers kids, even the simplest things require carefully thought-out teaching. Lacing-up shoe strings, dressing, hand-washing, teeth-brushing, bed-making, etc. are all projects you may want to tackle with your youngster, but it's not always easy to see how to teach things that seem so simple and so obvious.
One of the most useful instructions is teaching skills backwards: Do everything for your youngster up to the final step, then let him complete the task at hand (e.g., give shoelaces that last tightening tug). Gradually, over days or weeks, you’ll add more and more steps until he is starting at the very beginning. It’s a great way to ensure that teaching sessions always end with success.
Here are some more important tips for teaching self-care skills:
1. Be consistent. Use the same cues, gestures, words, prompts, and procedures.
2. Because moms and dads often lack the time or energy to spend long hours of intense work with the youngster, most activities must be planned to fit into the routine of the day, or they will not be carried out (e.g., when traveling in the car, work on “the use of hand wipes” after your child has taken the last lick of his ice cream cone).
3. Do not hurry; be patient. Progress may be slow at first. It's normal to feel some frustration. Think back to when you last learned a difficult task. If you need to take a break or relax, go ahead.
4. Give both the youngster positive feedback and lots of encouragement for his efforts.
5. If one way does not work, try another way until you find one that does!
6. Once the youngster can do a skill, let her do it on her own – even if it takes longer. If your youngster thinks you will help, she will stall long enough for you to do it. The youngster needs to know that she can do things and that her mother and father can expect that of her.
7. Once the steps to a particular task have been identified, you can choose to use – and then fade-out – physical prompts with backward or forward chaining. In backward chaining, full manipulation of the youngster is given on all steps until the last one, which the youngster performs independently. As training progresses, prompts are faded to the next to the last step and so on until the youngster performs the entire task without help. In forward chaining, fading begins with the first step, and then assistance is given on the others. Forward chaining should be used if the youngster already knows some of the steps.
8. Seize teachable moments (e.g., if all of a sudden one day your Aspie decides he is going to make his first peanut butter sandwich all by himself – and it’s not going so well – stop what you are doing and turn the experience into a “sandwich making” lesson.
9. Some moms and dads feel that they can only work on one specific objective at a time. They become very concerned with small tasks and forget to let the youngster be a kid. During times such as bathing, outside exploring, feeding, washing dishes and playing, many skills can be taught or reinforced without thinking things like: "I cannot do that now, I am working on another skill this week" or "I do not know all the steps to teach that skill yet."
10. Teach skills within age-appropriate, functional activities with real objects to help the youngster generalize information.
11. Analyze the behaviors involved in completing a certain task. Write those steps down into a workable sequence, and then put it in “social story” format.
12. Try doing the task in question yourself – blindfolded! What steps do you go through? How do you do it? How would you deal with the difficult steps?
13. Use common sense. Teach new skills when and where they happen so that the youngster learns there is a reason for what he is doing.
14. Use of consistent routines is critical. Routines give the youngster a sense of control and an understanding of what comes next or what will happen. When routines are disrupted, the Aspergers youngster may be fussy and take a day or two to get back into the routine.
15. Reward yourself and your youngster for the "big" successes that occur (e.g., “Great! You have officially learned how to tie your shoes. Hurray!!! Let’s go get an ice cream cone to celebrate.”).