How can autism impact on functional skills?
What are functional skills and why are they important?
Functional skills are those that are required for daily living activities. These are the everyday tasks and routines that people undertake on a regular basis as part of domestic, school or working life.
Daily living activities can include preparing meals, self-care, sleeping and toileting, all of which require functional skills as well as the ability to plan and stay on task.
Developing functional skills contributes to quality of life, both in childhood and later on. For older teens and adults, in particular, they are an important component of independent living. In addition, being able to perform daily living activities impacts positively on self-esteem, and reduces the degree to which people on the spectrum require assistance from others.
People with autism can find daily living activities difficult to manage because they generally need to be performed without distraction or receiving reminders. Functional skills may, therefore, require to be explicitly taught so that people on the spectrum are able to complete a range of daily living activities that play a part in independent living.
Daily living activities can include:
- Eating regularly
- Showering or bathing
- Getting dressed
- Brushing teeth
- Combing or brushing hair
- Clipping nails
- Getting sufficient sleep
- Going to the toilet
- Managing money
- Organising and taking care of possessions
- Using public transport
How does autism impact on functional skills?
Most daily living activities are a made up of a variety of different steps, and for people with autism the functional skills required for each of these steps to be completed may need to be introduced individually and taught explicitly. This is because people on the spectrum are often inclined to focus on details rather than the big picture and so mightn’t be able to envisage a process in its entirety or realise the end result.
People with autism can also have difficulty in recalling how tasks are performed and in which order, particularly if they require a combination of visual memory, decision making and motor skills. This may mean that it takes some time before all of the steps and functional skills that are required to complete a daily living activity have been learned and can be performed in sequence.
In addition, once functional skills have been learned, it may be the case that people with autism need regular reminding as to why they are required, along with frequent encouragement to ensure that they continue to be performed. Additional ongoing assistance may also be needed before people on the spectrum are able to incorporate these functional skills into their daily routine, and so regular reminders are needed.
These factors combined explain why the functional skills required for tasks like packing a school bag, making the bed, or setting the table can be difficult for people with autism to learn. This is also why it may require some time before daily living activities can become integrated and part of a regular routine.
Strategies to develop functional skills for people on the spectrum
Every person with autism is different and so the functional skills that it will be beneficial for them to learn will likewise be different. The manner and pace at which these skills are learned will also vary from person to person. This means that are a range of strategies can be used in order to help people on the spectrum to develop functional skills.
- Develop awareness
In order to help people with autism to learn how to perform a daily life activity, it is important that they first understand why it is necessary. Planning the activity and the individual steps required so that it is part of a regular routine may be helpful in this regard.
- Identify a goal
Learning a functional skill can be made easier if the goal is clear and appropriate for the person’s age and abilities. It may be helpful to introduce a limited number of goals initially, and that the pace of learning is measured.
- Break it down
Learning a daily living activity will be made simpler if the functional skills it requires are broken down into individual steps, rather than focussing on the end result. It may also be helpful to represent the process visually with images that describe the tasks and the sequence in which they should be performed.
- Teach each step
When people on the spectrum are learning functional skills, it’s helpful if they are taught each individual step discreetly. This enables a task to be learned incrementally, with new steps introduced only when earlier ones are understood and can be used with confidence.As part of this approach, it is helpful to provide a person with autism plenty of opportunities to practise, with effort and positive outcomes being rewarded with praise. Prompting as the task is being learned, with regular reference to a visual guide if one is being used, is also helpful.