Celebrate National Autism Awareness Month by learning ways you can help children with autism develop self-help skills. It’s important for all children to learn how to dress themselves, cross the street, and do other essential self-help tasks, but children with autism often have a difficult time learning these skills. In Teaching Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Clarissa Willis discusses how to help children with autism develop self-help skills and provides several strategies for teachers and caregivers, including the following four:

1. Communicating a Need to Go to the Bathroom

Teaching children how to indicate that they need to go to the bathroom is an important part of toilet training. Use this strategy when the child is old enough and physically developed enough to handle his or her own toileting skills.

What to Do:

  1. Begin by learning the American Sign Language sign for bathroom. This is a very simple sign to learn. Make a fist and insert the thumb between the second and third finger. Move the hand up and down. Use the sign with all the children. It is very effective, quickly learned, and alleviates children asking aloud to go to the bathroom.
  2. Once you’ve learned the sign, begin to use it every time the child goes to the bathroom. Make the sign and say, “______, you need to go to the bathroom.”
  3. Remember that when a child is first learning a new sign, his or her attempt to make the sign may be similar but not exactly like the one you want him or her to use. This is called approximation, and it is okay for the child to approximate a sign. However, you should continue to model how to make the sign correctly.
  4. Meet with the child’s family and encourage them to use the sign with him or her as well, even if the child is verbal or uses pictures to communicate. Using this sign can be very effective in a child’s toilet training.

Helpful Hints:

  • A sign is more effective than asking the child to use a picture card or go to a designated place and remove a bathroom permit because when children with autism need to go to the bathroom, they usually need to go immediately; waiting could cause an unwanted accident.
  • Teach the sign to everyone who works with the child so that they can also use it with him or her.

2. All About Money

When a child with autism has begun to understand number concepts and is developmentally mature enough to learn about money, it’s important to help him or her practice money concepts.

What to Do:

  1. One of the most important things a child will learn is how to use money to buy the things he or she needs. Using money is essential to a child’s future independence.
  2. Always use real coins and talk about the relationship of one coin to another, such as five pennies in a nickel and two nickels in a dime.
  3. Make a set of matching cards. To make the cards, take a picture of each type of coin (penny, nickel, dime, and quarter). Glue one picture onto each card. Encourage the child to match the coins to the pictures on the cards.
  4. Set up a store in your classroom where children can buy things. Let one child be the clerk and the other the customer.
  5. If possible, take a community field trip to a store so that the child can purchase an item.
  6. As the child becomes more familiar with how money is used, begin to use concepts such as more than and less than when talking about money.

Helpful Hints:

  • Don’t be surprised if the child picks up money concepts very quickly.
  • Understanding the relationship between numbers and using money is a concept that comes very easily to some children with autism.
  • If the child does not want to handle the money, allow him or her to use a tissue to pick it up.

3. Handwashing

When you have determined that a child with autism can follow the steps for handwashing, use this strategy to establish a routine where the child independently washes his or her hands. Keep in mind that this strategy will not be effective if the child is resistant to water and throws a tantrum when asked to place his or her hands under water.

What to Do:

  1. Picture sequence cards are always helpful, but this strategy depends on modeling what you want the child to do.
  2. Walk the child to the sink.
  3. Tell him or her that you are going to play a game where you do something and then he or she does the same.
  4. Say, “First, we turn on the water.” Turn on the water. (Wait to see if the child turns on his or her faucet, too.)
  5. Say, “Now, we get some soap.” Put some soap on your hands. (Wait to see if the child puts soap on his or her hands.)
  6. Say, “Next, we put our hands under the water.” Put your hands under the water, and wait to see if the child does the same thing.
  7. Say, “Now, we rub our hands together and count to 10.” Rub soap on your hands and count to 10.
  8. Say, “Next, we rinse the soap off our hands.” (Wait to see if the child rinses the soap off his or her hands. If the child does not, repeat the instructions.)
  9. Say, “Finally, we dry our hands.” Reach for a paper towel and dry your hands.
  10. Say, “Now, we put the towel into the trash.”

Helpful Hints:

  • If the child refuses to participate in the activity, help him or her gradually learn to accept the routine by partially participating, such as doing only one or two steps before trying the whole routine independently.
  • Remember, if the child is hesitant or resistant to any part of this routine, try to determine the cause. Maybe the towels are too rough or the water is too hot or cold.
  • Try to use the same words and follow the same procedure each time you practice the routine.
  • After the child has learned the routine, see if he or she can do it independently.

4. Crossing the Street

Teach children with autism a song to help them remember safety rules when crossing a street.

What to Do:

  1. Even though an adult will probably be present when a child crosses the street, it is still important that he or she learn what to do.
  2. Try to use this strategy when you are crossing a real street, even the bus lane at your school is a street. Practice outside, so that the child learns to associate this strategy with crossing the street.
  3. Teach the child the following song, sung to the tune of “Three Blind Mice.”
    Stop, look, and listen,
    Stop, look, and listen,
    When you cross the street,
    When you cross the street.
    Look to the left and then to the right.
    Look to the left and then to the right.
    Remember every time you cross the street to
    Stop, look, and listen,
    Stop, look, and listen.
  4. Practice the song several times, crossing the street as you sing.

Helpful Hints:

  • Although children with autism don’t role play well, try singing the song and role play crossing the street in our classroom.
  • Remember to sing the song every time you cross a street with the child.
  • Share the song with the child’s family and other caregivers and encourage them to sing the song as they cross a street with the child, as well.

For additional information on helping children with autism learn self-help skills, be sure to read our Insights and Inspirations article “Helping Children with Autism Learn Life Skills”. You’ll also find a variety of materials and resources you can use to create an inclusive classroom in the Special Needs and Inclusion section of our website and on our Inclusive Teaching for Autistic Children Pinterest board.