Teaching Adaptive Skills

In this months’s ASAT feature, Diane Adreon, EdD answers a question about what to consider when helping a child gain independence. To learn more about ASAT, please visit their website at www.asatonline.org. You can also sign up for ASAT’s free newsletter, Science in Autism Treatment, and like them on Facebook!

This article was originally published in ASAT’s free quarterly newsletter.

We are older parents and often lay awake at night worrying about our daughter’s ability to function independently when we are no longer able to care for her ourselves. She is 17 years old and is becoming more and more independent. We have read the “Hidden Curriculum” and that resource has opened our eyes to subtle social skills that may be missing in her repertoire. Are there adaptive skills that my wife and I should be considering that are often overlooked?

Individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) typically have an uneven profile of skills (Ehlers et al., 2007). Regardless of cognitive ability, individuals with ASD often have difficulty with independent living skills. In fact, in many cases, areas of strength can mask significant deficits in adaptive skills. Adaptive behaviors are a reflection of the way an individual applies his or her cognitive skills in actual life situations. Research has shown that individuals with ASD have significantly lower adaptive behavior functioning than their measured cognitive abilities (Klin et al., 2007; Lee & Park, 2007; Mazefsky, Williams, & Minshew, 2007; Myles et al., 2007). This suggests that, no matter the individual’s level of functioning, we need to focus on teaching adaptive skills.

When identifying what skills to teach, it is important to remember that goals should be individualized. Some questions to ask in identifying goals for your daughter include:

  • Is the skill a reasonable one to teach given her age and her opportunities to perform the skill?
  • Will she be transitioning to a new environment in the next few years? If so, what skills will she need to be successful in that environment?
  • If your daughter is currently in a program that can address daily living skills, can the goals be formalized making them a part of her IEP or IHP?

The Adaptive Behavior Assessment System- Second Edition (ABAS-II; Harrison & Oakland, 2003), Scales of Independent Behavior-Revised (SIB-R; Bruininks, Woodcock, Weatherman, & Hill, 1997), or the Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales- Second Edition (VABS-II; Sparrow, Cicchetti, & Balla, 2005) are all adaptive behavior assessment instruments that can yield information helpful in identifying goals. Although the overall scores will provide a global picture of your daughter’s adaptive skills, going over the specific items on the protocol will provide substantially more useful input in the identification of goals.

The science of applied behavior analysis (ABA) provides numerous strategies to assist in teaching skills. Baseline data supply information on current skill levels and can help identify target behaviors. A task analysis assists in breaking down complex tasks into smaller components and behavior chaining procedures can help determine which steps to teach first. In addition, behavioral shaping procedures and carefully constructed prompting hierarchies can help ensure that we are teaching skills in the most efficient and effective manner. Moreover, identifying reinforcers and using data to determine schedules of reinforcement can address motivational issues. Finally, teaching strategies to address generalization challenges can increase the likelihood of the individual learning to perform the skills in a variety of situations.

Since the scope of skills associated with independence is quite broad, the remainder of this response will focus on some adaptive skills that are often overlooked. When such skills are taught to individuals with ASD, they can become more independent.

Teach safe and practical money skills. When making purchases out in the community, it is a good idea to not “show” others how much money you have. Therefore, consider teaching your daughter practical strategies such as getting her money out of her wallet ahead of time, counting her money in her wallet and taking out just the amount of money she needs for a purchase. You may also want to teach her to make purchases using a debit card and the protocol for withdrawing money at an ATM. This includes teaching her to maintain an appropriate amount of space between her and others in the ATM line, putting the money into her wallet before walking away from the ATM, and so forth. It cannot be overstated that practice is essential for learning any of these skills. Some ways you can create more opportunities for your daughter to practice these skills include establishing a bank account and giving her a check for her allowance; thereby creating a reason for her to learn how to make deposits and withdrawals from an ATM. You can also have her practice making deposits and withdrawals inside the bank with a teller.

Teach your daughter to use a calendar to track upcoming events. For most of us, the number of things we need to remember increases significantly when entering adulthood. In addition, some of what we may need to remember occurs only periodically, and outside of our daily routines, thus it can be much harder to rely on one’s memory in those instances. Depending on your daughter’s level of functioning, your primary goal might be having her check her schedule to see what is happening that day or to prepare her for upcoming events and activities. In other instances, you can work with her on marking a calendar with upcoming events or reminders (e.g., return library book at school, swimming at Jake’s – bring swimming suit) and reviewing them daily. Teach her to get in the habit of referring to the calendar for information. Individuals with ASD need practice to use visual resources.

Teach your daughter to create and use her own to do list. Remember, a to-do list can use any kind of visual or cue so that your daughter understands what to do. Individuals of all functioning levels can learn to follow a to-do list if it is written at the appropriate level (may use pictures instead of words) and they have been taught to refer to it and do each task independently. For some, you may want to start early in having them write or type their to do list and learn to refer to it and check things off when done. It is also a good idea to help them identify and build in preferred activities to reinforce “work before play.”

Teach your daughter to take medication independently. Most of us use visual cues or create a routine to remind us to take our medication, so work to establish similar ones for your daughter. If the medication regime is complicated, consider using a weekly pill box and organizing the medication on Sundays. Or perhaps you have a visual reminder present at the breakfast table that says, “Take medication.” In some instances, this might mean having the medication bottle or pill box on the breakfast table. Establish the routine of having your daughter take the medication right before breakfast (if the prescription allows) as this will decrease the likelihood that she will forget it. Once you have introduced this routine, decrease your verbal reminders to take the medication and direct her attention to the visual reminder. If she has a smart phone, you can also teach her how to set up a daily reminder to take the medication at specific times.

Hopefully these suggestions and examples of possible targets have provided you with a few additional ideas on ways to ensure your daughter continues to make progress towards greater independence. Assessment of her skills across a number of domains (home, community, health, safety, and work) as well as reviewing her individual goals and progress on a regular basis can ensure an ongoing conversation about priority adaptive skills to help her continue moving\ forward. It does take time and practice, but the pay-off is worth it in the long run.


Bruininks, R. Woodcock, R., Weatherman, R., & Hill, B. (1997). Scales of Independent behavior-Revised. Rolling Meadows, IL: Riverside Publishing.

Ehlers, S., Nyden, A., Gilllberg,C., Sandberg, A. D., Dahlgren, S., Hjelmquist, E., & Odén, A., Jr. (1997). Asperger Syndrome, autism, and attention disorders: A comparative study of the cognitive profiles of 120 children. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 38, 207-217.

Harrison, P. L., & Oakland, T. (2003). Adaptive Behavior Assessment Systems (2nd ed.). Minneapolis, MN: Pearson Assessment.

Klin, A., Saulnier, C. A., Sparrow, S. S., Cicchetti, D. V., Volkmar, F. R., & Lord, C. (2007). Social and communication abilities and disabilities in higher functioning individuals with autism spectrum disorders: The Vineland and the ADOS. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 37, 748-759.

Lee, H. J., & Park, H. R. (2007). An integrated literature review on the adaptive behavior of individuals with Asperger syndrome. Remedial and Special Education, 28, 132-139.

Mazefsky, C. A., Williams, D. L., & Minshew, N. J. (2008). Variability in adaptive behavior in autism: Evidence for the importance of family history. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 36, 591-599.

Myles, B. S., Lee, H. J., Smith, S. M., Tien, K., Chou, Y., Swanson, T. C., & Hudson, J. (2007). A large scale study of the characteristics of Asperger syndrome. Education and Training in Developmental Disabilities, 42, 448-459.

Sparrow, S., Cicchetti, D. & Balla, D. (2005). Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales (2nd ed.). Minneapolis, MN: Pearson Assessment.

About The Author

Dr. Adreon is the associate director of the University of Miami-Nova Southeastern University for Autism & Related Disabilities (UM-NSU CARD). She also has a private consulting practice specializing in high-functioning autism spectrum disorder (www.spectrumlifestrategies.com, Info@spectrumlifestrategies.com)