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Functional Skills for People On The Autism Spectrum

December 4, 2012   By Dr. Michael Mueller, Ph.D., BCBA-D

How To'sLife Skills

Early Learning Programs

The focus of early intervention programs for very young children with autism or other developmental disabilities is most typically language acquisition and conceptual learning. Teaching the basics of communication and language, such as how to request preferred and needed items or activities, how to label the things in the immediate environment, and how to ask and answer questions can be of primary importance. Concepts, including matching like things with like things, making discriminations amongst similar or common objects and pictures, and other conceptual skills such as sorting, sequencing, and grouping items and pictures by categories can be very important for children if they can use that information later in practical ways.

A Change In Focus

Later in a learner’s life, many teaching programs shift from conceptual learning to a focus on acquiring skills that are immediately useful, practical, helpful, and beneficial. “Functional skills” are those skills that if learners cannot do for themselves, someone will have to do for them. Functional skills are immediately useful and important. They increase self-help and independence and are present in every setting and throughout every stage of life. When caregivers wonder what the future will hold for their children, adolescents, and even their adult learners, the answer usually depends on how independent a learner is. The difference in living and care options can change dramatically if a learner has mastered even the basic self-help skills such as getting dressed, toileting, grooming and hygiene, and bathing skills. Functional skills – those important everyday skills that allow learners to be less dependent on others – allow them to be participants in their individual environments, and self-direct their lives. They are the skills that will make the most impact in social, living, community, and everyday life situations. Language skills are always a priority. However, for many individuals who have not yet acquired the early developmental steps such as sound imitation, functional language can be more helpful and more useful to many learners over teaching a developmental language sequence.

When To Teach Functional Skills

All too often, caregivers, educators and parents wait too long to design effective teaching programs that highly prioritize functional skills. When looking at typical child development, many basic functional skills emerge between 18 months and 3 years: using utensils, drinking from cups, using napkins, cleaning up after a meal, selecting clothes, putting on and taking off clothing, using fasteners, toileting, washing hands, brushing hair, bathing, using a towel, brushing teeth, putting clothes and toys away, taking items from the table to the kitchen, putting clothes into a hamper, opening and closing doors, operating leisure items and basic electronics such as tablets and game systems, stopping before going to the street, looking for cars, ordering food from menus, choosing clothes from stores, buckling seatbelts, etc. Starting when learners are very young, functional, adaptive and useable skills should be a part of their curriculum. Functional skills should be incorporated into skill teaching programs from the very beginning of instruction. If your learner is 2 or 22, functional skills are important, relevant, and can lead to immediate, noticeable, and measureable changes.

Who Can Benefit?

Basic self-help and self-care skills are only the tip of the iceberg. Functional skills are ever present for learners of all ages and all ability levels. There is always something to learn. There is always a next step that, if mastered, can lead to more independence, better social skills, more inclusion, and less dependence on others. In every room of your home things need to be opened, closed, twisted, turned, put away, organized, and prepared. Language and social skills are present in every setting and can be used to increase participation, conversation, and control over one’s environment. In the kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, and dining room long lists of skills are required for real independence.

In the community, different types of restaurants have different behavioral expectations and skills needed for success. Carrying a tray containing drinks after finding a clean available table in a fast food restaurant is a skill not required in a restaurant in which you need to wait for a table and to then order from a server.  Grocery stores, mall stores, superstores, and vending machines each have their own unique skill requirements.  Knowing and demonstrating the acceptable rules and expectations in each setting, responding to authority figures, and safety skills are important anytime someone leaves their home. Everywhere we go and everything we do can be taught to our learners.

Barriers To Learning Functional Skills

As responsible parents, caregivers and teachers, we do a lot for our learners. We do so much sometimes that we do not create opportunities to teach our kids how to help themselves! Sometimes this comes from not knowing when it is typical (or common) for learners to do certain things on their own. When do children start to do the laundry? Most kids start participating in some aspect of the laundry process pretty early in life. Typical two- to three-year-olds put their dirty clothes into a hamper. Most can identify where some clothes are stored or which closets jackets are kept. The ability to sort clothes into piles by different colors also starts early in life. What about kitchen skills? When do kids start to make their own snacks? When can they open snack containers or wrappers? What about shopping, exchanging money, ordering food, taking out the garbage, sending emails, talking on the phone, taking messages for others, caring for pets, going into a store independently to purchase a known item? All of these “big picture skills” are really sequences of many smaller skills. Many of those smaller skills are acquired quite early in life.

Sometimes we do not allow kids to do certain things due to safety concerns. For example, we might not let a learner participate because of the involvement of heat, electricity, chemicals, steam or sharp knives in the kitchen, parking lots, pools, cars, strangers, etc. Although the world can be a dangerous place, with the correct supervision, oversight, guidance, and care, many learners can acquire the skills involved in dangerous situations. Most can also come to recognize the danger in those situations and generalize those supportive skills to other similar dangerous areas. Avoiding some dangerous situations for some learners will be inevitable. However, to the extent possible, recognizing a hazard and teaching skills to minimize risk in those settings might enable a learner to develop appropriate coping skills to make his or her world less dangerous in the future.

Sometimes it is easier, faster, and less of a struggle if caregivers simply do the skills for the learner.  Many times caregivers do not build enough time into their routines to include the time it takes to teach some skills to their learners. Most of us lead busy lives and we are prone to being rushed. If we are aware of some skills we want to teach and where to teach those skills, we might be able to carve out a little time to address some skills that if a learner could do himself, would actually save us time in the long run. For example, as we walk out the door on the way to work, we stoop down to tie our learner’s shoes. We grab our learner’s bag for school. We open the door on their side of the car and buckle their seatbelt. If we could adjust our schedules a little bit to make some room to teach a couple of these skills each morning, once those skills are mastered, we would actually save time each morning and enalbe our learner to become better equipped to participate and care for himself.

Sometimes skills we want to teach appear out of reach because the learner may not have the necessary prerequisite skills. In other instances, we might not even be aware of the different possibilities of skills that need to be taught. If functional skills are everywhere all the time, how do you go about prioritizing what skills are properly adjusted for your learner?

Use A Data-Based Assessment Tool

Some early learning assessments such as The Assessment of Basic Language and Learning Skills- Revised (The ABLLS-R) are commonplace, even expected, when creating early language programs for young learners on the Autism Spectrum. Assessment data should also be used to determine which very specific functional skills a learner can currently demonstrate. Such assessment results also reveal which skills are not currently in a learner’s repertoire. The point at which the mastered and un-mastered skills meet in a skill sequence is the starting point for teaching.


AFLS, Assessment of Functional Living Skills, autism

The Assessment of Functional Living Skills (The AFLS) provides skill sequences in dozens of skill areas across Home, School, and Community settings. Determining starting points is only one way in which assessment data is useful. The skills tracking system is helpful for showing progress from administration to administration. Teaching functional skills in the sequence provided in the assessments allows a caregiver to follow a data-based curriculum and provides confidence in deciding what to teach next.

How To Get Started

After completing the AFLS, you can choose a set of skills that your learner has not yet mastered and begin teaching. Everyone can teach functional skills. If you do not have a formal teaching history, start slowly.  Pick one or two tasks and get your learner involved. Slowly teach the skill to independence. When the meal is finished, require the learner to carry a cup or a spoon from the table to the sink. Have him push a chair in or throw garbage into the trash can. Have him turn the plug in the bathtub prior to turning on the water or get him to make sure the shower curtain is out of the tub. Have the learner brush a few strokes when doing her hair.  Have the learner hold the toothbrush, etc. Start small and build larger and larger skill sequences. Parents…don’t worry about collecting data! Just push your kids’ involvement and participation. Pretty soon, when you raise the expectations for your learner, you’ll have changed his routine. After meals, he will know to clear his plate, cup and utensils from the table, to push in his chair and to throw her garbage in the trash. When it is bath time, he will gather any necessary materials, plug the tub, and adjust the water temperature and level. Clothes will be in the hamper, items will be put in their places, and the your learner will be closer and closer to independence in a few areas that used to require your full support.

As a professional, the biggest transitions I see are for our adult learners who had no expectations placed upon them as children. Don’t wait that long to prepare! Start early and outcomes will improve as the years go by!

The AFLS Modules:

Modules are available individually or in various combinations. The following outlines the topics covered by each module...

Basic Skills Module:

  • Self Management
  • Basic Communication
  • Dressing
  • Toileting
  • Grooming
  • Bathing
  • Health, Safety & First Aid
  • Nighttime Routines

Home Skills Module

  • Meals at Home
  • Dishes
  • Clothing and Laundry
  • Housekeeping and Chores
  • Household Mechanics
  • Leisure
  • Kitchen
  • Cooking

Community Participation Module

  • Basic Mobility
  • Community Knowledge
  • Shopping
  • Meals in Public
  • Money
  • Phone
  • Time
  • Social Awareness and Manners

School Skills Module

  • School Waiting and Transitions
  • Classroom Routines
  • Meals at School
  • Classroom People, Places, Objects
  • Classroom Mechanics
  • Outside at School
  • Functional Academics
  • Classroom Leisure and Independence

Check back, as future modules will include: Vocational Skills and Independent Living!

Dr. Mueller obtained his Ph.D. in School Psychology from the University of Southern Mississippi in 2002. Co-founder of Southern Behavioral Group, Mike has practiced Applied Behavior Analysis with children with Autism in Home, Public School, Private School, State Residential, Group Home, Clinic, and Community Settings. Mike is the author of 4 Books, 5 Book Chapters, and 25 Journal Articles. He has delivered more than 100 conference presentations around the United States and internationally. He is a Founder and Advisor to Stimulus Publications, publishers of The AFLS as well as teaching, data collection and reference materials made especially to help individuals on the Autism Spectrum realize their ultimate potential.