What Are "Independent Living Skills" for Teens and Adults with Autism?

Teen Cooks
Teen Cooks. Getty

Ever since my autistic son, Tom, became a teen, I've been hearing about the importance of "Independent Living Skills."  As a good mom, of course, I want Tom to live as independently as possible -- so I started looking into the definition of Independent Living Skills to find out just what the term means. I started out assuming that "Independent Living Skills" referred simply to the skills that teens and young adults need to get through the day -- but there are (or can be) much more to it.

The first thing I learned is that the term "independent living skills" is not universally used -- and when it's used, it may mean different things to different people.  There are multiple assessment scales and tests.  Often, Independent Living Skills are broken down into other types of skills which overlap -- such as:

  • Life skills (usually basic day to day skills such as the ability to toilet, dress, eat, etc.)
  • Functional skills (usually the ability to function in a typical setting such as a classroom, cafeteria, bus, etc. without needing special support to make appropriate choices and take appropriate action; making your way through the school cafeteria would be a functional skill)
  • Leisure or Recreational skills (these vary widely, but could include going to the movies, taking part in a sports league, going to the library, and so forth.)
  • Employment or Vocational skills (everything from behaving and dressing appropriately to getting to work on time, interacting with others in the workplace, and doing the job)
  • Social or Interpersonal skills (this could mean greeting people appropriately, but could also include anything from handling romantic relationships to appropriate ways to interacting with a coach or fellow band member)
  • Technology skills (can you use a cell phone?  a computer?  can you look up information, pay for things online, etc.?)

    Each of these groups of skills, of course, is made of many smaller skill groups. Going to the movies, for example, could involve the ability to find out when a movie is playing, get to the movie on time, pay for the ticket, buy the snack, watch the movie appropriately, and then get home again.  It might also involve getting dressed and groomed prior to leaving the house, ensuring that the door is locked (but that the keys are in your pocket) and so forth.

    Because there is no one assessment given across the board, the particular assessments given to you or your child may be general and intended for everyone aged 14-22 (or older).  As a result, some of the assessments seem to incorporate absolutely every skill that a typical grown adult living on their own in their own home with no support whatsoever would need in order to take part in absolutely every aspect of life. 

    While some of the skills described are basic (hair brushing, for example), many the skills described on these assessments are beyond what 99% of typical teens or young adults even THINK about doing.

    The Assessment of Functional Living Skills, for example, starts with the basics -- hygiene, dressing, eating, grooming -- but then goes on to much more advanced skills ranging from detailed knowledge of home repair to the ability to handle specific medical emergencies.

    In theory, after taking one or another Assessment of Functional Living Skills assessment, the IEP team (or other care team if the person is over 22) will set up specific plans to teach those skills.  Thus, for a person who is not yet able to manage the cafeteria, a goal might break down the skills to include taking a tray, making nutritious selections, paying for the food, taking the food to a table, eating appropriately, and then bussing the table.  That same person might have additional goals related to communication, navigation, and so forth.

    The first step in getting such goals and supports set up is to take the assessments; the next steps, however, may be more difficult to put into place. It's hard to imagine any program that could actually teach anyone the entire realm of Independent Living Skills -- though presumably some succeed.

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