Teaching Independent Living Skills to Students with Autism

Instructor: Abigail Cook
Students with autism often need additional instruction in day-to-day independent living skills. There are a variety of skills and strategies that teachers should consider in their planning. This lesson will discuss some of the skills that should be taught and how to teach them.


Autism is a complex spectrum disorder, and individuals with autism may show a variety of symptoms at different levels of severity. However, there are some common characteristics that people with autism share. The following is a list of common characteristics of individuals with autism:

  • Difficulty communicating with others
  • Extreme insistence on sticking to a schedule or routine
  • Difficulty understanding abstract concepts
  • Difficulty learning new skills

These characteristics often make it difficult for students with autism to learn the same way as their peers. While it's important for students with autism to follow the general curriculum as much as possible, it is critical that teachers and parents also focus on independent living skills.

Skills like getting dressed, making a sandwich, following directions, and buying something from the store are all skills that most people learn as they grow up, sometimes simply from watching others. But learning through observation does not work for many individuals with autism. They often need specific instruction and repeated practice to learn these skills.

Teaching Strategies

There are several different strategies that have been proven effective when working with students with autism. We will review some of these strategies and then explore how they might be applied when teaching independent living skills.

Task Analysis

Task analysis is the process of breaking down a skill into smaller parts. This makes a skill look more manageable and allows students to learn a multi-step skill one step at a time. For example, task analysis could be used for the skill of buying lunch at school. It might look something like this:

  • Step 1: Walk to the lunch room.
  • Step 2: Get in line behind the last person.
  • Step 3: Hand your lunch card to the lunch worker.
  • Step 4: Walk up to the kitchen counter.
  • Step 5: Take the tray.
  • Step 6: Walk to an empty seat and sit down.


Generalization refers to the ability to complete a task in different settings, with different people, at different times. This is important because students need to be able to apply different skills across a variety of situations. For example, using a specific set of flashcards to master multiplication facts in the special education classroom is not beneficial to a student, unless they can use this knowledge to complete more complex multiplication problems in math class. A typical student can apply skills in various situations naturally. Students with autism need explicit instruction in various settings.

Visual Supports

Because students with autism have a hard time understanding abstract concepts, the use of visual supports can be helpful in making skills easier to learn. Visual supports are pictures or objects that provide cues or reminders. For example, in order for students to remember their morning classroom routine, you may post a series of pictures to help students remember what to do.

Social Stories

Social stories are used to help students with autism understand abstract concepts such as feelings and reasoning. A social story is a short, illustrated story written by the teacher to teach a specific skill or idea. The story may be written from the student's perspective and may include pictures of the student. This can be used to describe situations, explain what the student's behavior should be, and explain the outcomes of certain situations.

Independent Living Skills Instruction

Let's take a look at some specific independent living skills that teachers might focus on and some examples of how to teach them.

Getting Dressed

Task analysis and visual supports are particularly helpful in teaching a student the routine of getting dressed. Breaking the skill down (first, take off your pajamas, then put on underwear, your pants, etc.), and posting the steps with a picture of each item makes the skill clear and manageable from start to finish.

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