Autism & Independent Living Skills For Teens and Tweens

Written by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS
Dr Lucy Russell Clinical Psychologist Founder of They Are The Future
Author: Dr Lucy Russell, Clinical Psychologist

Navigating adolescence with an autistic tween or teen tends to be a complex a journey, and independent living skills can be a major sticking point.

Helping your child develop essential life skills, like personal hygiene, study skills, independent travel and managing money, can be complex and stressful. 

Yet these skills are necessary for a smooth everyday life and preparation for adult life

In this article, I’ll share practical, down-to-earth advice to help your child develop these crucial skills. This guidance is written for parents of autistic children who do not have an intellectual disability.

Drawing from my twenty years supporting families like yours as a child psychologist, I aim to give you support and clear steps to make this part of parenting a bit easier.

a teen girl on a bus looking out the window

Understanding Life Skills in Autism

In the context of autism, life skills are the essential skills needed for daily living and independence. These range from self-care and personal hygiene, like brushing teeth, to organizational skills and money management. For individuals on the autism spectrum, mastering these skills is crucial but can be challenging due to various factors associated with autism.

Autism can impact independence in several ways. Sensory processing issues might make seemingly simple tasks like brushing teeth or getting dressed overwhelming.

Black and white thinking can complicate decision-making, turning everyday choices into hurdles.

Executive functioning skills, which include planning, time management, and flexibility, are often areas of difficulty.

Social challenges can also make navigating public spaces, like using public transportation or socializing, daunting tasks.

These difficulties can sometimes make autistic children and young adults more vulnerable in social situations, where understanding nuances and personal safety becomes important.

The struggle with these independence skills can have a profound effect on self-esteem. When daily tasks become obstacles, it can lead to feelings of frustration and inadequacy.

This is why we need to approach life skills training with patience and understanding, breaking down tasks into manageable steps.

Hygiene & Personal CareFundamental self-care skills that promote health and well-being, such as brushing teeth, showering and personal grooming.
Organizational SkillsSkills that help in managing personal spaces and responsibilities, making daily life more manageable.
Money ManagementCrucial for independence in adult life, enabling young adults to make informed financial decisions.
Social Communication SkillsKey for building relationships and navigating community interactions, including understanding social cues and engaging in conversations.
Study SkillsTechniques and strategies that enhance learning efficiency and academic performance.
Going Out & SocializingSkills related to safely and confidently navigating public spaces, attending social events, and forming connections with peers.
Public TransportationUnderstanding how to use public transport systems, including reading schedules, purchasing tickets, and navigating routes.

You will need to take an individualised approach to supporting your child their essential life skills.

Take some time to reflect on the unique challenges and strengths of your child. 

serious tween boy at the counter in a small general store

Assessing Your Child’s Independent Living Skills

Assessing your child’s independent living skills is the first step in getting a grasp of their current abilities and setting goals for their future.

This process involves identifying the “skills gaps” between what your child can currently do and what you hope they will be able to achieve.

However, it’s equally important to recognize and celebrate your child’s strengths.

Acknowledging what they excel at provides a confidence boost and a solid foundation to build upon.

For example, if your child can already accomplish certain household chores or navigate familiar environments with ease, these are significant strengths to acknowledge.

Here’s a table illustrating an example of assessing skills and setting future goals:

Current SkillFuture GoalSkills Gap
Going to the shops with a friendGoing out to the local town aloneNavigating more complex environments, personal safety awareness
Managing small amounts of money at homeManaging a budget and transactions in storesAdvanced money management, understanding value and budgeting
Following a simple recipe with assistancePreparing a meal independentlyCooking skills, kitchen safety, time management
Responding to known emergency scenariosHandling a variety of emergency situationsBroader knowledge of personal safety and emergency responses
teen boy studying

By focusing on bridging these skills gaps while reinforcing their strengths, you can help your child develop the most important skills for their personal growth and safety.

Here are some questions which might be helpful for you.

Questions for Assessing Your Autistic Child’s Independence Skills
What area of independent living is currently causing the most stress in my child’s life?
What area of my child’s independent living skills is currently causing the most stress for family life?
What are the upcoming milestones for my child (e.g., leaving school), and what do they need to be able to do at this point that they can’t right now?
In which tasks does my child show confidence and independence, and how can these strengths be leveraged to support areas of weakness?
How does my child respond to new or unexpected situations, and what support do they need to improve in this area?
What feedback have I received from others (teachers, caregivers, friends) about my child’s independent living skills?
How does my child manage personal safety and emergency situations, and what knowledge or skills are lacking?


Teaching Independence Skills To Autistic Teens and Tweens: My Recommended Strategies

Coaching and developing independence skills in your autistic teen or tween requires patience, understanding, and the right strategies.

Hands-on instruction is a cornerstone of effective learning, allowing your child to engage directly with the task at hand. Don’t be afraid to act as a “coach” with your child!

This approach helps turn abstract concepts into concrete actions for your child, making it easier for your them to grasp and master specific skills.

Real-life practice in natural environments is very important, in my opinion. This could be practicing money management at a local store, or navigating public transportation. It’s going to reinforce the skills they have already learned whilst boosting their confidence in handling everyday activities outside the safety of home.

Role-playing, discussion, and problem-solving are other dynamic methods that you should consider. They will encourage your child to think critically and make their own decisions.

It’s crucial, however, to recognize that your child has to have some willingness to develop these skills.

If they’re not ready, for example if they’re hesitant to go out independently, it’s essential you respect their pace. Forcing them could be counterproductive.

Here’s a table summarizing my recommended teaching methods for developing independence skills in autistic teens and tweens:

Teaching MethodDescription
Hands-on InstructionEngaging directly with tasks to turn abstract concepts into tangible actions, aiding in skill mastery.
Real-life PracticePracticing skills in natural environments, such as shopping or using public transport, to reinforce learning and boost confidence.
Role-playingSimulating real-life scenarios to enhance decision-making and problem-solving abilities.
DiscussionEncouraging open conversations about tasks and challenges to foster understanding and personal insight.
Problem-solvingWorking together to find solutions to everyday challenges, enhancing critical thinking skills.
Waiting for ReadinessRecognizing your child’s willingness to learn and respecting their pace, avoiding forceful teaching.

Incorporating gentle coaching into your everyday life lays the building blocks for your child to achieve a greater level of independence.

Encourage an environment where your child feels safe to learn and grow at their own pace. The long-term goal is to help them build a foundation for a fulfilling life.

tween boy with peers around him

Autistic Young Adults: University/College or Employment

For young people planning to advance to college, university, or employment, remember that achieving a certain level of independence isn’t a race.

Some may need more time than their peers, and that’s perfectly okay. Your child may need an extra year or more of preparation before they make this transition.

Many educational institutions offer robust support for life skills training, including mentors who can provide personalized guidance.

There are also many supported employment schemes working with companies who understand neurodivergence and offer the extra support your child might need to thrive in the workplace.

Autism Independent Living Skills: Practical Tips for Parents

Here are some practical tips to make the process of teaching your tween or teen independent living skills smoother and more effective:

  1. Use Visual Aids: Visual supports like charts and checklists can be incredibly helpful. They provide clear, step-by-step instructions that can guide your child through their daily routines. For example, a morning routine checklist might include tasks such as brushing teeth, getting dressed, and packing a school bag.
  2. Practice Gradually: Introduce new skills very gradually and practice them in realistic settings. This approach helps your child apply what they’ve learned in real-life situations, reinforcing their ability to perform tasks independently.
  3. Avoid Comparisons: Remember, every child is unique. Comparing your child’s progress to others can be disheartening. Focus on your child’s ability and celebrate their individual milestones, no matter how small.
  4. Seek Support: Don’t hesitate to find out what help is available from your child’s school or local autism organizations. These resources can offer valuable guidance and support tailored to your child’s needs.
  5. Take Small Steps: Focus on one specific area at a time, based on what’s most important for your child’s development. Whether it’s improving study skills, learning to travel to school alone, or mastering food preparation, breaking down the learning process into manageable steps can be more effective.
  6. Consult an Occupational Therapist: Occupational therapists specialize in helping individuals gain independence in all areas of life. They can work with you and your child to create a practical plan for developing independence skills.
  7. Leverage Special Interests: Using your child’s special interests to teach new skills can make learning more engaging and fun. For instance, if your child has a passion for gardening, you could use this interest to teach responsibility and planning skills by having them care for a small plant, schedule watering times, and track the plant’s growth.
a teenage girl writing in a planner

Autism Independent Living Skills Case Study: 15 Year Old Annabel

Annabel, an autistic 15-year-old high school student, finds studying overwhelming. She struggles to know where to start with her assignments.

This often leads to panic attacks, adding to her and her family’s distress.

Additionally, Annabel requires considerable support with her self-care routines like remembering to wash and getting her clothes ready. Her parents are concerned about her ability to lead an independent life in the future.

Annabel’s parents decided to take proactive steps to adapt her environment and provide the structure she needs to develop her independence skills.

In the bathroom, they installed a visual chart that breaks down showering into small, manageable steps. Each step is clearly illustrated. A basket containing her personal care items, such as shampoo and shower gel, is labeled in numerical order to correspond with each specific task on the chart.

This visual aid has significantly eased Annabel’s anxiety around self-care and has made her daily tasks more manageable.

In terms of her studies, Annabel’s parents collaborated closely with her school to introduce more structure into her learning process.

Recognizing Annabel’s need for clear, concise instructions, they ensured that her assignments were broken down into smaller parts, making each task less daunting. They helped her at home when she struggled to get started with studying.

They also implemented a to-do list system, which helped Annabel with time management and gave her a clear starting point for her studies. This approach alleviated her stress and have her a much-needed sense of accomplishment as she ticked off completed tasks.

Looking ahead, Annabel’s parents are exploring work experience opportunities that align with her interests and strengths. They believe that early exposure to a work environment, coupled with the support she’s receiving, will further her skills and confidence.

They are paving the way for Annabel to have a more independent life post-high school.

Autism & Independent Living Skills in Teens and Tweens: Summary 

Throughout this article, I’ve delved into developing independence and daily living skills for autistic tweens and teens.

I’ve focused on practical advice and insights to support your journey in nurturing these necessary skills in your child. 

Progress may be gradual, but with patience, understanding, and the right resources, your child can achieve significant milestones.

Lean on the support of family members, teaching staff, and professionals to guide your efforts.

Together, you can empower your child towards a more independent and fulfilling life.

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Developing Flexible Thinking Skills in Kids: Why and How?

Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years.

In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children. Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.

Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.

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