Carefully Consider the Meaning of Independence

In working with individuals with autism, my goal is always to help them move towards independence. Recently, I was speaking with a colleague about an intervention I had done in which a child independently began his bedtime routine (brushing teeth, changing into pajamas, etc.) when his VibraLite watch vibrated at 8PM. When the watch vibrates, he resets it for 8PM the next day. Her response was that she didn’t believe that was truly independent behavior, since he required the prompt of the watch vibration. Many of you reading may agree with my colleague, but I think we must consider independence today in the context of our own behavior.

In the evening, I set an alarm clock, and I only wake up in the morning when it buzzes. When I run out of milk, I’ll put an alert in my Reminders app on my phone. When a friend invites me to lunch, I immediately enter the date in my calendar. All of these are technically examples of prompts, but if I am managing the prompts, I would argue that I am in fact engaging in independent behavior.

When I think about independent behavior, I want the children I work with to one day be able to grocery shop, go to work, eat a meal with a sibling, and more without having another adult facilitate those interactions. I want them to remember the time a movie starts, recognize when clothing needs to be washed, and pay their bills on time without another adult reminding them.

So, that begs the question: what counts as independence? We live in a time in which means we have a plethora of tools at our fingertips that weren’t available even a few years ago. Here are a few things you might want to think about in terms of independence:

  • What are the individual’s peers doing? Is it common for their peers to use a technological tool such as an iPad in the behavior you’re targeting? If not what are they using? Would that be an option for your learner?
  • What do you use in your day? If I’m using a Reminders app to keep track of my grocery list, then there’s no reason an individual with autism shouldn’t be allowed to do the same!
  • What does the research say? Many of the technological tools we use haven’t been out for very long, so it’s only been in the past couple of years that the research base is starting to catch up in terms of appropriate use of tablets, smartphones, and the like. But there’s a lot of good research out there! Take a look at the suggested reading list at the end of this article (and don’t forget to look at the reference lists in those articles to find more research.)
  • What does the individual gravitate towards? I have some students who prefer paper and pencil, and others that enjoy using tablets. I’m going to select interventions and tools for independence based on the individual’s own preferences! This may mean you have to try a few things out before you find the best fit.

All in all, I think it’s essential that individuals with autism be held to the same standard as the neurotypical population, not a higher standard when it comes to teaching independence.


Suggested Readings:

de Joode, E., van Heugten, C., Verhey, F., & van Boxtel, M. (2010). Efficacy and usability of assistive technology for patients with cognitive deficits: A systematic review. Clinical rehabilitation24(8), 701-714.

Hill, D. A., Belcher, L., Brigman, H. E., Renner, S., & Stephens, B. (2013). The Apple iPad (TM) as an Innovative Employment Support for Young Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Other Developmental Disabilities. Journal of Applied Rehabilitation Counseling44(1), 28.

Kagohara, D. M., Sigafoos, J., Achmadi, D., O’Reilly, M., & Lancioni, G. (2012). Teaching children with autism spectrum disorders to check the spelling of words. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders6(1), 304-310.

Kagohara, D. M., van der Meer, L., Ramdoss, S., O’Reilly, M. F., Lancioni, G. E., Davis,
T. N., Rispoli, M., Lang, R., Marschik, P. B., Sutherland, D., Green, V. A., & Sigafoos, J. (2013). Using iPods® and iPads® in teaching programs for individuals with developmental disabilities: A systematic review. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 34(1), 147-156.

Mechling, L. C., Gast, D. L., & Seid, N. H. (2009). Using a personal digital assistant to increase independent task completion by students with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 39, 1420-1434.

Uphold, N. M., Douglas, K. H., & Loseke, D. L. (2014). Effects of using an iPod app to manage recreation tasks. Career Development and Transition for Exceptional Individuals, 39(2), 88-98.

Van Laarhoven, T., Johnson, J. W., Van Laarhoven-Myers, T., Grider, K. L., & Grider, K. M. (2009). The effectiveness of using a video iPod as a prompting device in employment settings. Journal of Behavioral Education, 18(2), 119-141.

Wehmeyer, M. L., Palmer, S. B., Shogren, K., Williams-Diehm, K., & Soukup, J. H. (2010). Establishing a causal relationship between intervention to promote self- determination and enhanced student self-determination. The Journal of Special Education, 46(4), 195-210.


Sam is an ABA provider for students ages 3-15 in NYC. Working in education for twelve years with students with Autism Spectrum Disorders and other developmental delays, Sam utilizes strategies for achieving a multitude of academic, behavior, and social goals. Sam is currently a PhD candidate in Applied Behavior Analysis at Endicott College. She is also an assistant professor in the ABA program at The Sage Colleges.