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Building Independent Living Skills For Young Adults on the Autism Spectrum


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The building blocks of a productive life include tasks like maintaining a budget, learning to cook and clean, and developing strategies for becoming more independent. The following outlines several strategies for building independent living skills for young adults on the Autism spectrum, with ADHD, and learning differences.

Time Management and Punctuality

There is a saying that goes, “Five minutes early is on time, on time is late, and late is unacceptable.”

Teaching young adults this perspective will keep them pushing forward and hold them accountable. Whether it be a college class, a job interview, or even a date, it is always important to be on time!

The first step in building effective time management is to look at the schedule and make sure it is realistic.

  • Is there enough time to get between classes?
  • Is the schedule overwhelming?
  • Is there enough time for a break?

These are all very important questions to consider towards their success in effectively managing their time. Once a realistic schedule is determined, begin to organize time, prioritize tasks by ranking them and breaking them into smaller chunks, keep a time log, or use a time estimation worksheet. For our technology-savvy students, it is a great idea to use a calendar with push notifications or reminders on mobile devices.

Maintaining a Budget

Budgeting your finances is a critical skill to know in order to live an independent life. Everyday necessities can add up and become very expensive, which makes it even more important to keep track of all expenses to allow the young adult to have enough money for things that they need.

Maintaining a monthly budget helps the young adult hold themselves accountable in setting and reaching financial goals.Maintaining a budget also allows the young person to practice prioritization of certain purchases, such as needs vs. wants. These financial skills can be particularly hard to develop for those with autism or learning differences.

Make sure that they understand the basics of money management such as:

  1. writing a check
  2. reading a bank statement
  3. checking account balances
  4. understanding the difference between checking and savings

There are many tools to help young adults stay on track with maintaining their budget. Using an excel spreadsheet or word document can be an effective way to track spending expenses. Young adults also find tracking their budget through the use of apps on mobile phones very efficient. Mint.com is a free app that helps with budgeting and tracking expenses. For visual learners, expenses can be broken down by percentages, pie charts and line graphs.

Life SkillsOptimizing the Grocery Shopping Experience 

Before grocery shopping, creating a grocery list is essential. Not only will it help them to remember everything they need to get, it will also save them time in the store, especially if the list is organized.

Another great way to build efficiency is to take a tour of the supermarket together before doing any shopping in order to familiarize the layout. You can point out general information like the most important items are usually located around the perimeter of most stores. Determining a day 1x a week can also help create a productive routine for people on the autism spectrum.

It can also be helpful when the grocery list is categorized by type of product. That way when they are shopping, they don't have to go back and forth because their list shows them what they need from that section. A fun way to get to know the store is to add a new ingredient to the grocery list each time before going, and try to locate that item.

Recipes: See It Through

When following a recipe, using visual aids of the process and the final product can help the young adult see the desired outcome. Sometimes they are curious about what size to cut something. Maybe it's understanding the difference between a "pinch" or a "dash." Demonstration of the skill is also useful for them because it provides the motions for them to practice. When searching for a recipe, look for ones that offer photos or websites that provide video demonstrations. Even if they have done the recipe before, having these tools to refer back to will help their cooking process, improvement, and success!

Nutrition for One

When living independently, it can be challenging to cook full meals for one person. By dinner time, it can be exhausting just thinking about the work that needs to go into making a meal. Often, it's easier to purchase items such as a frozen pizza or a box of mac and cheese to make because it's fast and convenient. What you can do is encourage your young adult to add at least one fresh component to the meal that doesn't necessarily need to be cooked. Add some raw spinach and cherry tomatoes on the side of the pizza. Grab a banana to go along with the toasted waffle before heading out of the door in the morning.

When thinking about nutrition, we also want to be realistic about the expectation. Regular encouragements to make small healthful choices can evolve into larger shifts!

Self-care and Hygiene

Independent self-care and personal hygiene are something that young adults on the spectrum sometimes struggle with maintaining. When living at home with parents, they have someone else to hold them accountable. At CIP, our goal is to reframe this perspective and move towards holding oneself accountable. 

Giving them real-life examples, such as how independent hygiene will contribute to better health and how it is an external representation of oneself, will help make the concepts tangible and relatable. Medication charts, checklists, and step-by-step directions are important in the beginning stages of monitoring progress. Once a consistent routine is established, the charts and lists are less likely to be needed.

Personal Safety

Teaching our young adults personal safety is another imperative area to living independently. When living alone, we need to be educated and prepared for any scenario since there isn’t always someone around to help. Practicing and going over how to respond in emergency situations will prepare them on how to react if they were faced with something. How would you react in a situation such as burning yourself? What do you do if you feel ill? What if there was a fire in your apartment? Role-playing and question asking are very effective. Posting signs near the door with step-by-step directions and important emergency numbers is a good idea. Also, go over very specific techniques such as not looking down at the phone while walking, staying in well-lit areas at night, and generally being alert in public will also help prepare them for practicing independent personal safety.

Life SkillsGeneral Housekeeping Skills

Doing the laundry, washing dishes, vacuuming, taking out the trash -- just to name a few -- are all of the important day-to-day tasks that we need to complete in order to live in a clean environment. It is something that most people don’t enjoy doing, but regardless, it still needs to get done.

Successfully maintaining the cleanliness of an apartment or home will give the young adult a sense of purpose, pride, and confidence. Tasks such as these are executive functioning processes, so it is important to organize tasks specific to each section of the living area and to give a time expectation. Initially, it is very effective to use modeling and hands on techniques to show them how to clean a specific area or use a particular appliance. Checklists, scheduled reminders, and chore charts are all effective ways in independently maintaining a schedule for housekeeping chores and duties.

Basic Repairs and Understanding of Tools

It is recommended for anyone living independently to have their own set of basic tools to perform simple repairs around the house/apartment. There are many household tasks that are important to know how to do, such as, changing a light bulb, tightening a screw, hanging a painting, or even building furniture. Teaching our young adults how to safely use tools, the proper use of tools, and when to use them will continue to build a sense of independence and confidence. Modeling, using hands-on examples, and step-by-step instructions are effective in teaching how to use tools.

Utilize Public Transportation

Public transportation is a key factor in becoming independent. It enhances their self-advocacy and overall confidence. Familiarizing the young adult with their surroundings is important. Establishing specific landmarks, street names, and directions will be very helpful in memorizing an area.

Teaching students how to utilize their mobile phones as a resource will give them the freedom to travel without any help. Using this resource, they are able to track bus/train schedules, obtain step-by-step directions, and use mobile-based services like Uber. Completing travel training will give them the confidence and ability to use it on their own independently. Repetition is pivotal in mastering public transportation. Also, when doing travel training it is important to practice a variety of scenarios and situations that may occur such as missing a train or similar.



About the Author: Sean Milani

Sean Milani is the Life Skills Coordinator at CIP Berkeley. He graduated from Humboldt State University in 2011 with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and has been with CIP since 2012.


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CIP's full-year postsecondary programs offer individualized college academic, social, career and life skills support for young adults with Autism, ADHD and other Learning Differences. Learn more...

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