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A Parent’s Guide: Living a Happy, Independent Life on the Spectrum

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Individuals on the autism spectrum communicate, interact, behave, and learn in ways that are different from most other people. As they grow older, they often need to learn the specific skills required for daily living and integration into their communities. A parent’s ultimate goal for their child, regardless of their level of functioning, is to be as independent as possible. Parents can start setting goals for their child on the spectrum and begin working on independence skills at any age!

Learning daily living skills

Learning daily living skills is often taken for granted when raising children. Many children are able to learn from repetition and grasp these skills quickly. Children on the spectrum benefit from more explicit instruction and often need more time to practice. Parents can kick-start this process by working on everyday skills at home. Here are daily living skills that a child with ASD can practice:
  • Personal self care
  • Hygiene
  • Keeping living area clean and organized
  • Cooking, meal prep, shopping
  • Eating well and making healthy choices
  • Doing their laundry
  • Transportation & getting around: driving, public transportation
  • Making appointments
  • How and when to seek medical help

Set aside time every day to work with your child. Strategies such as modeling (talking out loud through a task), task analysis (breaking it down into steps in advance), or visual prompts (list of steps to follow) are great ways to teach. Gradually let your child do more of the tasks independently, and give them chances to learn from their mistakes!

Executive functioning skills

Time management

Many children with ASD have difficulties organizing themselves and efficiently managing their time. Parents can help their children by creating detailed daily, weekly, and monthly schedules. Over time, parents can decrease support with created schedules and allow the child to take over the majority of the planning.

Children and teens on the spectrum often have difficulty estimating how long a task will take. For instance, they might think writing an essay will take 20 min, but it might end up taking 2 hours or more. Help them gauge how long different tasks take with this simple exercise: Have them estimate how long a task will take, write it down, then use a timer to see how long it actually takes. They might be surprised at how different their estimations are!


Individuals with ASD may need support figuring out how to get help or find answers when they have a problem. They can often see issues in black and white terms, and sometimes lack the flexible thinking skills needed to problem-solve. Parents can help their children with ASD to understand that there are a multitude of ways to solve problems.

Parents can practice problem-solving by role-playing different scenarios that the child might encounter throughout their day. Ask the child to come up with 2-3 ways to solve the problem to help them realize that there may be more than one way to complete a task, and what they can do if they get stuck.

Planning and Prioritizing

Planning ahead is another common struggle for individuals with ASD. Parents can help their child learn to break down and prioritize steps for both short and long-term projects using checklists and calendars.

Staying organized and on-task is crucial for people on the spectrum. Planning each activity in advance should always be the first step. Using timers or alarms to remind their child when a task needs to be completed is a positive way to keep the child on task.

Visual schedules and calendars can help a child with ASD work more independently. Visual schedules use words and pictures to prompt individuals when it is time to start a task. This teaches the child to check their schedule, rather than rely on a parent or adult for prompting.

Prioritizing, or figuring out what task needs to be completed first, is a difficult skill to learn for many children. It can be especially frustrating for children with ASD as they often see their work pile up without a clear, sequenced plan of action. Help them break down their workload, order their tasks in terms of importance, and write them on a checklist, planner, and/or calendar.

Managing money

Learning about money should be part of any plan for independence. Parents can talk to their children at an early age about budgeting, paying bills, and saving money. Younger children can earn a small allowance, and older teens can manage a debit or credit card. Opening a bank account will also teach the importance of how to responsibly manage money.

There may be some individuals with ASD who need support with these skills throughout their adult life. Families can set their children up with support to help them manage their finances when needed.

Focus on their strengths

Part of living independently means finding a job that is a good fit. Individuals with ASD can be hard-working and reliable employees. However, it is important for them to learn the rules of the work environment and how to showcase their strengths.

Consider your child’s strengths and weaknesses as they consider jobs, college, and career paths. Think about how they best process information: do they process auditory information quickly, or do they need time to respond to questions and directions? Do they prefer to work alone or in groups? Are they someone that enjoys being outside or inside an office environment? Can they communicate better verbally or in writing? Make sure you’re setting your child up for success as they explore different career paths.

Self-discovery is an important step to a child’s growth to independence. Give them ample opportunities to experience different careers and identify their strengths. Volunteering, apprenticeships, and job shadows can be valuable avenues to help your child gain insight and confidence.

Your child may choose to go to college instead. If a child with ASD has an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or 504 plan in high school, they may be entitled to extra support in college. Learning how to advocate for themselves in order to access the accommodations they are entitled to will help them be successful and independent at school.

Free time

Balancing work, school and social life is important for everyone. Being able to take time and re-energize prevents stress and burnout. Children with ASD need to learn how to set time aside for themselves so they can learn this important aspect of self-care.

Social skills programs are very helpful at any age, but especially beginning in elementary and middle school. Skills and concepts taught at an early age can help children make friends and create more chances for social activities during free time.

Children with ASD usually need some help structuring their social time during adolescent years, but you can encourage your child to work on organizing their activities as they enter their teen years. They may need guidance navigating opportunities to socialize, find group activities, and discover ways to meet other people with similar interests. As they get older, help them find online resources and local organizations to meet others and make friends.

Keep working on all types of communication skills

Effective communication skills are crucial for children with ASD to live independently. Parents can use social stories, role-play, or watch videos to help their children understand how different situations may call for different types of communication, both at school and in the workplace.

As children and teens grow older, communication becomes more complex and the expectations are higher. Here are some situations to practice with older children with ASD:

  • Job interviews
  • Talking to bosses and co-workers
  • Relationships (friendly and romantic)
  • How to deal with difficult people
  • Phone calls and emails: what’s expected

Final thoughts

You have all the tools to help your child live as independently as possible! Be consistent and patient. Set high, yet realistic, expectations for your child. Understand that different skills will mature more quickly and some may need more time.

Most importantly, do not forget to model the skills you want your child to learn. Involve them in your thinking and problem-solving processes as you guide them toward independence. Remember to have fun, and enjoy watching them discover and embrace their strengths!

Stay empowerED,

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