One of the most popular questions I get asked from parents of young children with autism is, “What is my child’s future going to look like?” While early intervention is a crucial part of the treatment of autism, thinking ahead to what puberty and the teenage years might look like is an important consideration, as well. Puberty and adolescence are difficult times for every pre-teen, and adding the challenges that come from having a diagnosis of autism can feel overwhelming to you, your child, and your family. It is important to go into this time with tools and strategies to help your child feel as comfortable and confident as possible, while also finding ways for your child to increase their independence in these areas.
Self-Care Skills for children with Autism
Self-care skills such as bathing, using deodorant, brushing teeth, and general cleanliness are topics that arise for every pre-teen. For children with autism, simply just stating about what needs to happen may not be enough. Saying, “You need to go take a shower,” may not have the same effect as, “It’s really important to take showers everyday so that our bodies are clean and smell fresh. This way we feel comfortable and healthy, and other people around us do too.”
Using specifics such as this may help children with autism clue in to the “whys” of cleanliness. Additionally, providing visual schedules on the steps of showering, hand-washing, teeth brushing, dressing, etc., can help your child ensure that they are completing each step of the process, while still practicing more independence than if they had a parent or caregiver walking them through the routine.
Fostering friendships and forming appropriate relationships with peers and adults at the time of adolescence can be extremely challenging. At this point in life, each child is starting to develop at different times, while interests and abilities are forming at different times and in unique ways. One highly effective strategy to help children with autism understand and participate in social situations are, the very aptly named, social stories.
Social stories can be custom tailored to each individual/situation, and break down any topic clearly using pictures and simple words. For example, a child who struggles with approaching peers in a group could benefit from a social story that focuses on what to say when approaching a group, what to do after saying, “Hi,” how to engage in a simple conversation, and how to say goodbye. These steps would be broken down using pictures (either real or found online), and simple sentences that match the child’s level of understanding. At the age of adolescence, it can be very powerful to have the child themselves be a part of creating the social story so they feel ownership and understand the content on a deeper level.
In addition to social stories, engaging in role-play with peers, adults, siblings, etc., can be very beneficial in helping a child with autism know what to expect in social situations. Practicing scenarios that are likely to happen in real life can help reduce or eliminate some of the anxiety and fear surrounding peers and socialization. For example, having a child practice what to do if someone says something unkind to them, or what to do when they are invited to a birthday party can set the child up for a successful interaction, rather than a situation where they might feel apprehensive or uncomfortable.
Functional Living Skills
By the time a child reaches the age of puberty, there are certain skills that we hope to see them engage in independently. This might be taking on simple chores around the house, making themselves a snack, or taking care of a pet. For all children, including those with autism, it is important that they have exposure to these types of functional living skills, as these will benefit them throughout their lives.
Using the aforementioned social stories, visual schedules, and explaining why we wipe the tables or feed the dog are all helpful strategies, but sometimes those are not enough. Using reinforcement strategies such as token charts/reinforcement systems can be a helpful tool to ensure that your child is participating in the functional activities of the home. For example, a child may be able to earn a star or token for each expected chore completed. Once all tokens have been earned, the child can have access to a highly preferred item such as a video game or special activity.
This token system should start with a few demands, which can be increased as the child shows success. This gives a tangible means of connecting the completion of functional/expected activities to earning a desired effect.
NSPT offers services in Bucktown, Evanston, Highland Park, Lincolnwood, Glenview, Lake Bluff and Des Plaines. If you have questions or concerns about your child, we would love to help! Give us a call at (877) 486-4140 and speak to one of our Family Child Advocates today!