Teaching Children with Autism Daily Living Skills

September 7, 2012, TBH Blog
TBH Blog

The Cold and Flu season usually begins in October. Since that’s only a few weeks away, Trumpet Behavioral Health is offering a great activity for parents that will help you teach important skills and prevent the spread of cold and flu.

This week’s skills activity will demonstrate how you can teach children with autism and other developmental delays to break down complex tasks into steps.

Children with autism and other developmental delays often find it challenging to complete more complex tasks that have many steps. Throughout the day, most of us complete tasks that include more than just one or two steps, like making a sandwich or brushing our teeth.  One important self-help skill is washing hands — which is one of the most important things you and your child can do to help reduce the spread of cold and flu-causing germs.

This Week’s Featured Activity: Teaching Children with Autism Daily Living Skills; Complete More Complex Tasks that Have Many Steps

Objective: Uses soap and water to wash his/her hands
Developmental Area: Independence
Curriculum Level: Basic
Setting: Adult-Child
Materials: Soap and Visual Task Schedule (for hand washing)


The activity below is a simple way to help improve a child’s independence by teaching them to wash their hands using a visual schedule.

Simply break the task of washing hands down into a task analysis (step-by-step). By creating a task analysis, you will be thinking through all the steps necessary to complete a complex task, and think about the order of the tasks. What you’re doing is breaking down the process, step-by-step. Create pictures and words for each step, and prompt your child through each step of the entire task to help them learn.

Remember to quickly fade (reduce) any prompts so the child doesn’t become dependent on the prompts. We recommend recording how your child does with each task involved with the activity. This will help you track your child’s progress and to see where he or she may need more help learning the step of the task.  To help teach your child a series of smaller tasks to complete a more complex task — or if your child struggles with any of the steps involved in the series of tasks — you may want to use “Forward Chaining” or “Backward Chaining” teaching techniques.

Forward and Backward Chaining Explained

“Chaining” is how you break down a complex task into smaller, step-by-step tasks (task analysis).

  • Forward Chaining: you teach the first step in a complex task and reinforce after the task is completed. Then add the next step one at a time, proceeding forward to the second step, third step, and so on until your child masters the skills and the entire chain has been trained.
  • Backward Chaining: work through each step of the task with your child until the last step. Then begin your training by focusing on the last step. Once your child starts completing the last step independently and consistently, move to having them complete the last two steps independently.  Then 3rd to last, and so on.

Examples of Chaining:

For Forward Chaining, you would say/prompt:

  1. “Go to the sink”
  2. “Turn on the water”
  3. “Put two squirts of soap on your hands”
  4. “Rub your hands together under the water”
  5. “Make sure you get the soap rinsed off”
  6. “Turn the water off”
  7. “Go to the towel”
  8. “Rub your hands dry on the towel”

For Backwards Chaining (can your child handle physical guidance, if yes, this may be a good approach):

  1. Take them to the sink
  2. Turn on the water for them
  3. You will put two squirts of soap on his or her hands
  4. You will rub their hands together under the water
  5. You will make sure they get the soap rinsed off
  6. You will turn the water off
  7. You will then take them to the towel
  8. And here is where you would start their training, by saying “Dry your hands on the towel” or “Rub your hands dry on the towel”

Activity Procedure/Directions

  1. Create a visual task schedule for hand washing. Make sure the visual has words and/or pictures that represent/depict the task. Make sure the steps of hand washing are clearly described in short phrases (e.g., turn on tap, put hands in water, get soap, rub hands, rinse hands under water, turn off tap, etc.).
  2. Post the visual task schedule at the child’s eye level in the bathroom, preferably in front of the sink. You may want to laminate it to protect it from splashing.
  3. Unless your child experiences sensory issues with liquid soap, use a liquid soap dispenser instead of bar soap. Since this is what is most often available in public restrooms, this will help your  child to generalize the task (repeat at school, public restrooms, restaurants, a friend’s house).
  4. Ask your child to stand at the sink. Using a short phrase, tell your child “Time to wash your hands!”
  5. Draw your child’s attention to the visual task schedule (e.g., tap it, etc.). Using a playful and inviting tone, point out the first step (e.g., “First let’s turn on the tap!”). Using hand-over-hand prompting, gently physically prompt your child to turn on the tap.
  6. Point out the next step and physically prompt your child to complete it. Continue this same procedure for the remaining steps in the visual task schedule.
  7. Allow your child to complete the last step on his/her own.
  8. Once the child has finished the last step, give him/her social praise and reinforcement.
  9. Repeat this procedure whenever your child uses the restroom. Each time, wait a little longer before physically prompting your child. Once your child has mastered the last step in the chain of tasks, begin teaching the second to last step in the chain of tasks. Continue this backwards “chaining” until your child has mastered all of the hand washing steps and is able to wash his/her hands independently.

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