The Early Road Towards Independence

Categories: Parent Perspective

Let’s talk about the goal of all this hard work.

The Teaching. The Behavior Plan. The IEP Goals. The supports and accommodations. The evaluations. The Speech Therapy. The Occupational Therapy. Working on Functional Skills. The Visuals. The data. (And really- so much more.) Our kids are professional Rock Star life learners.

Really- the goal of it all is two-fold. One goal is for the benefit of today. The present moment. Last year’s intervention might be this year’s success story.  Yesterday’s meltdown can turn into today’s triumph. We do the work because it matters for today. Today’s success, today’s happiness, today’s productivity, today’s interactions. It all matters. But it goes further than that. As a Parent of two autistic boys, one thought that crosses my mind more than I would like- often like a ton of bricks on my chest in the middle of the night is- “What will happen to them when I die?” That question, a morbid reality I know- inspires me to do all I can every darn day to help them work towards their greatest level of independence.



How do we help build independence? Follow along, and I’ll share some tips that work for us. Please note: independence is always meant to refer to the greatest level of independence obtainable for a particular child in any area of life. If the goal for every single child is to live alone, pay bills, have a job, and be completely self-sufficient- (what I used to define as “independent”), then some of us will feel like we are failing if we aren’t on that trajectory. First of all- that’s not true. Failure is NOT TRYING.  Secondly- I’ve met looooooots of non-autistic individuals who don’t meet that criteria. So, let’s just reach for the stars in our own sky.

Stop Before You Prompt. I know, I know, I know. This takes some immediate behavior change- BY US. My goal is to count to ten silently in my head before prompting. I don’t just mean in traditional sit down teaching lessons, (which is also vital!!)  I mean all over in life. Here are some examples.

Child opens snack and puts the wrapper on the table, Adult instantly says, “Throw that away!”

Child drops item on the floor. Adult- “Pick that up!”

Child silently struggling to zip jacket. Adult- “Do you need help?”

Child leaving environment- Adult- “Don’t forget your coat!”

Sufficient wait time is IMPERATIVE for our learners. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been on 7….8…9…. and BOOM- my son will answer the question I asked- the one I didn’t think he even listened to or remembered.. Mind you- ten seconds can feel like 78 years. It will feel like enough time to pull up a chair, eat a sandwich, and watch a television show. (Or maybe that’s just for impatient people like me.) But it is VITAL. So, change your behavior and watch theirs change.

Communication is a Human Right.

All humans need a method to communicate RIGHT NOW, as well as the ability to continuously work on and expand their current language abilities. I can not stress this one enough. Not being able to communicate- or only being able to communicate with a parent is not going to prepare someone for the future. It’s why we finally decided to get my son with autism and Childhood Apraxia of Speech a communication device.  I knew that “mies” was fries, and I knew what each approximation or scream meant, but that did not generalize to settings outside of mom and dad. Yes, modeling a device is hard work, and no- he usually does not like using it. But like taking vitamins and brushing teeth- sometimes we need to make sure our children do things that are important and not super fun. Please please please- talk to your child’s Teacher and Speech Language Pathologist to discuss short and long term communication goals.

Let Them Try, Let Them Fail and and Wait Until They Ask For Help.

I know, this is kind of three things, but once I started typing I couldn’t stop. Jumping in to rescue a struggling student is actually teaching the OPPOSITE of independence. (NOOOOO – that’s not what we want! )Letting them work through it creates the ability to problem solve effectively. This one will feel like the count to ten. I’ve literally had to SIT ON MY HANDS to make sure I don’t reach out to help/fix/make/do. I will clench my fists watching them brush their teeth so I don’t grab the toothbrush and take over. I’ve been guilty of doing the wrong thing a million of times: I will clean up the mess because it’s so much faster than making sure they do it. I will help them get dressed because I don’t have the time to wait. Sometimes the only option is parenting in the moment. However, the first step to change is knowing it might be the fast way- but it’s not the road to independence. Which leads me into the next tip.


Pick One. Pick one functional life task and work on it full throttle.  It can be so overwhelming looking at the big picture when assisting children –brushing teeth, dressing, undressing for bed, using a fork, eating, taking a bath/shower, sitting at the table for a meal, buckling a seatbelt and more. So, pick one, work on it systematically with any supports or accommodations your student needs for success.

Treat it like an official goal even if it isn’t. Figure out where your starting point is (i.e. baseline) so you know where your Point A is. Figure out what you need for success (a visual? A timer? Ten extra minutes built into your morning?) and go for it. Don’t expect perfection- only progress. Done is the new perfect. Little consistent progress is how we all learn- little change is the only way to make big change happen.





Establish clear routines Children can have trouble making decisions for themselves if they can’t think sequentially. This can be worked on by establishing a fixed routine for them. Once your child knows what needs to be done on a particular day and at a particular time, it will help them to one day start doing it by themselves. Repetition is the key to mastery for so many important concepts.


Praise Praise Praise (Reinforce for those who don’t yet value verbal praise). Catch them being independent- even if it isn’t perfect. We celebrate shoes on the wrong feet and shirts put on inside out. If it’s a hard skill, and one they have been really working on I don’t try to “correct” or fix the livable imperfect things. Build their confidence by letting them know you are confident in their abilities. Always doing for them sends them the message that they are not capable of or responsible for doing it on their own. All kids need someone who outwardly expresses their belief in them- especially our kids who are analyzed, critiqued and corrected all day long.

Sometimes helping in the moment is what the moment needs. But sometimes we need to take a step back and invest time, energy and teaching into helping to build skills of self-sufficiency and independence in our children.

Chrissy Kelly
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