Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that is characterized by challenges in social communication and restricted or repetitive behaviors (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Children with ASD often face difficulties in developing autonomy as many of them might lack effective communication skills to advocate their wants and needs. Autonomy can be described as the ability to make independent decisions and engage in daily activities without the assistance of adults. Encouraging autonomy in children helps build confidence and self-esteem. It is crucial to promote autonomy to enhance their quality of life, overall well-being, and prepare them for a more independent future. There are many evidence-based strategies that were developed to facilitate autonomy while addressing the specific needs associated with ASD.
(FCT) is a strategy designed to teach individuals alternative and socially acceptable ways to communicate their needs. If a child engages in interfering behaviors that limit their ability to function effectively in daily life or have little or no communication, FCT may replace those behaviors and provide an appropriate way to communicate. For example, if a child engages in hitting when they want a toy, FCT might involve teaching the child to use a specific word, picture, or gesture to request the toy. Providing children with a means to communicate their desires is crucial to promoting autonomy. Being able to communicate appropriately allows them to make choices with or without others asking them what they want. Many adults often mistakenly assume they know what a child may want. However, their preferences probably change every day. Think about how often people make decisions all day, from what they wear to the food they eat. Small choices they make throughout their day are empowering and foster decision-making.
Specifically, task analysis, can be valuable in developing autonomy in children. Chaining involves breaking down complex skills or tasks into smaller, manageable steps and teaching each step systematically. By using chaining procedures, we can support the development of independence and autonomy. Children with ASD may need more assistance in daily tasks. This may include brushing teeth, washing hands, or getting dressed. These tasks may sound simple, but they include many steps that can be broken down by chaining, enabling children to engage in these routine activities more independently. For example, washing hands can be broken down into these steps: wet hands, dispense soap, scrub hands, rinse hands, and dry hands. Let’s say the only step the child can do independently when starting to teach this process is to wet their hands. Allow the child to do this step independently and prompt them through the rest. Then gradually fade the prompts as the child progresses through these steps, this allows them to complete steps they are capable of independently and enhances their sense of accomplishment. Some simple daily tasks could come with obstacles for children with ASD, but with a chance to complete a step or more on their own, they gain a sense of ownership, contributing to increased autonomy.
Like a visual schedule, is a structured visual representation of activities that offers predictability and helps children anticipate transitions. Many people need schedules to structure their day. Some may even have a calendar that outlines our tasks for the day. Children with ASD often find comfort in routines and consistency. A visual schedule breaks down the day making it easier for children to understand the order of activities. As they become familiar with their schedule, they may be more likely to initiate tasks on their own. For example, in their nighttime activity schedule, they learn that following undressing is bath time, they may initiate the task without prompting from their parents. Visual schedules also can include opportunities for the child to make choices. They can choose their preferred activity for a break period or pick the order of some tasks. Including the children to create their own visual schedule can contribute to the development of executive functioning skills, such as planning and choice-making. Giving children the opportunity to express their preferences in activities also fosters a sense of agency and augments autonomy.
It is imperative to recognize the individuality of each child and the importance of supporting their autonomy. We want to create an environment where their choices are respected, and freedom is valued. Autonomy is a basic aspect of human well-being and development. We want to empower children with ASD to lead fulfilling lives and shape their path of independence.
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American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.