Three Ways to Help Children with Autism Become Independent

4/22/2020 By Brandon Sikes, BCBA

Remember your first time driving on your own at 16? The fresh air blowing in your hair, blaring your favorite song, deciding to take a left instead of a right—simply because you can. At 16 years old, all I craved was independence. Now as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), I spend a lot of time helping children with autism achieve their own independence.

Understanding independence

Why is independence so important? And how can we build independence for children with autism?

Independence is something we all crave in one form or another. It unites us all—and it’s a feeling that we often don’t realize we want until we feel pressure or “control” from others.

We’re wired to seek independence because it allows for greater access to multiple positive reinforcers—in other words, things that keep us motivated. Being independent creates opportunities and avenues to pursue jobs, relationships, leisure activities and spatial freedom.

Around the ages of 13–18, all kids begin to seek independence because they realize they can find more reinforcement—any time they want it and however they want it.

But when a child faces barriers in accessing reinforcers of independence, they become less likely to find happiness because they have to depend on another person to deliver that reinforcement.

Below, we’ll describe the steps we take using Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) to help children with autism gain more independence.

1. Identifying barriers

The first step in identifying barriers to a child’s independence is to interview those closest to them. A parent or teacher, for example, can pinpoint barriers quickly because they often feel the effects that stem from a lack of independence—like needing to drive their child everywhere, make all of their meals, or find options for entertainment.

During initial intake assessments, many parents or teachers share a variety of concerns, including:

  • Lack of social skills
  • Lack of independent problem-solving skills
  • Inability to make meals
  • Inability to make money
  • Limited leisure interests
  • Inability to go places alone
  • Inability to self-manage their own behaviors

After the parent interview, a BCBA conducts a research-backed assessment on independence. One of the primary assessments used in the ABA treatment world is the Assessment of Functional Living Skills (AFLS). This considers what neurotypical developing adults need to do in order to be independent and then breaks down these complex skills into smaller, more manageable tasks for kids with autism.

A few categories include:

  • Social awareness and manners
  • Leisure skills
  • Job skills
  • Community participation
  • Cooking skills
  • Safety skills

We can begin this assessment as early as age 13. Once completed, we’ll have a visual display that highlights the areas of biggest need and helps the BCBA as they develop an individualized treatment program to fill in all of the gaps.

Over time, the barriers that often prevent a child with autism from reaching complete independence become increasingly smaller and smaller, making an independent life possible.

2. Setting goals

For some families, achieving independence can seem overwhelming after viewing the initial results of these assessments—but rest assured, if you work alongside your child and a BCBA, these skills can certainly be improved. And because we focus on positive reinforcement in ABA, your child will enjoy the process of learning these new skills.

To set your child up for success, the BCBA will design goals by first identifying any necessary prerequisite skills and then highlighting which gaps to focus on first. Each skill will be identified as a goal and then articulated in a specific and measurable way.

These goals include choice for you and your child whenever possible. We might ask the child if they would prefer to learn how to practice good hygiene or how to make a meal that satisfies. It is important that we attempt to create buy-in from the child as much as possible. Behavioral research shows that when people are given choices they are more likely to follow through with a difficult program.

It is extremely important that these goals have measurable criteria and are attainable, and that a time domain is added for successful goal creation. An example might be:

“Steven will spend 30 minutes each day before bedtime studying a driver’s test manual for 7 consecutive days without adult prompts.”

After completing each goal, the BCBA would then be able to direct the child and family toward the next most important goal.

3. Analyzing and celebrating

In order to effectively analyze progress, tracking accurate forms of data is crucial. In ABA, your child’s team will collect data on how your child responds at each given opportunity to engage in the desired skill.

For example, if one of your goals is to increase independence in cooking, then the therapist may take data at each step required for making dinner and record either “yes” (the child performed the skill) or “no” (the child needed assistance).

Over time, by using ABA interventions such as positive reinforcement, prompt fading and other techniques, we hope to see that the child’s ability to make dinner becomes increasingly independent and highlighted in the data.

Another popular form of data tracking is to have the child record data on themselves. Known as self-management, this is a research-backed intervention for increasing the speed at which positive results are made.

In self-management, the BCBA will help design how the child should take data on themselves. They would typically score either “yes” or “no” on a given skill, and then record this on a document as well as graph their progress over time.

If the child performs the skill and tracks it accurately, then reinforcement would be provided by the family or therapy team. Ideally, all of the children we work with are able to self-track their progress as this technique leads to faster results and more buy-in. In addition, the graphing itself can be visually reinforcing for the client and help them visualize success over time.

As you and your child work to achieve greater independence, make sure to take the time to celebrate the little victories along the way. If you only celebrate the end result, the child may miss out on faster progress and may struggle to reach their end goal.

These celebrations can be things like:

  • Taking your child to a movie
  • Letting them choose the meal
  • Playing video games with you
  • Earning money

Whatever you and the BCBA choose, make sure you are genuine and consistent with the celebration—consistency is integral on the path toward achieving successful independence.

And lastly, don’t forget to pat yourself on the back from time to time. This isn’t easy work but it is certainly for the greater good of our children and with determination, you and your child will see positive change.