Autism & Functional Skill Training

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1. Of or having a special activity, purpose, or task.
2. Designed to be practical and useful.

In my Social Skills post I talked about how its important to remember to include social skills training in any ABA program. Providing instruction to a child with Autism isn't  complete until the child can successfully navigate through social situations. In addition to social skill development, another instruction area that can be overlooked is Functional Skill Training. 

Functional skills are skills you teach to the child that are intended to be practical, useful, and helpful in a variety of settings. Children with autism may need to be specifically taught functional  skills that other children readily learn from their environment. Functional skills should be age appropriate goals that are relevant to the people in the child's life. 
You may have worked with children with minimal or no functional life skills. These children can be bright and friendly, but outside of an instructional environment they are unsure of the "rules of life". The child may stand and stare at children in the cafeteria, because they dont know how to ask if they can sit down. The child may tantrum and scream when snack time is over, because they dont know how to ask for more food. The child may hug strangers in public places, because they dont know what inappropriate touch is. Its easy to see how a lack of appropriate functional skills can place children with Autism at a disadvantage in the home, school, and community.

Functional skill goals are going to be very specific to the particular individual. The child’s cognitive ability, environment, and lifestyle will determine what goals you select. Its also important to consult with the child’s family to see what functional goals are important to them and of high value.
 Without careful consideration of  the persons age, the values of the family, or respecting the dignity of the individual, functional skills can be taught incorrectly. Here are a few examples of how functional skill goals can go wrong:

 -Functional goal: Teach an early learner toddler to properly use utensils. I once worked with a Hispanic toddler who was being taught in school to use a fork. The teachers spent week after week teaching this child to use a fork because an assessment revealed that he didn’t have the skill. However in the home environment this child rarely used utensils as the family mostly ate finger foods, like tortillas. Communication between home and school was poor, so the teachers didn’t know this until I brought it to their attention. This skill goal was not truly functional for this child.
-Functional goal: Teach a pre-pubsecent girl to use feminine hygiene products. Many parents or caregivers begin teaching this skill to girls with Autism right before puberty, not fully understanding how difficult this skill can be to teach. Inevitably the teaching process is difficult and frustrating for everyone involved. In a communication style the child can understand, the child should be advised about upcoming body changes years before they need to learn what to do.
-Functional goal: Teach leisure skills to an adult with cognitive impairments. I spent some time recently with a 42 year old woman with moderate cognitive impairments, and her favorite hobby was watching Nickelodeon cartoons such as Spongebob, or Dora the Explorer. Due to an extensive behavior plan created by staff members,  this woman who used to spend her free time harming herself can now enjoy a variety of shows--however they are all cartoons. It isn't age appropriate, or respecting the dignity of the individual, to only teach this woman to watch children's cartoons all day. Much more appropriate  functional goals could include baking, painting, reading pitcure books, or gardening. 

When correctly implemented into an ABA program, functional skill training of age appropriate goals can benefit the individual in several ways:

Reduce social stigma
Can counteract bullying/teasing
Leads to better quality of life, happiness, self -esteem
Makes social interaction easier with same age (not younger) peers
Reduces burden placed on parents or caregivers as individual becomes more self-sufficient
Makes community outings easier
Makes it easier to function in a variety of environments
Can encourage appropriate interests, diminish inappropriate interests
Behavior approximation of peers leads to increased social opportunities
Sense of belonging due to shared peer interests
Can lead to hobbies and leisure activities
Can reveal skills and strengths
Can eventually lead to post secondary education or job placement

If you do not currently have any functional goals in your ABA program, I encourage you to think of a few to start teaching. Individuals of all ages need appropriate functional skill training; this isn’t just for children. Functional skills are skills or behaviors that are either done by the individual or will need to be done FOR the individual. For example: brushing teeth. I can either brush my own teeth, or someone will have to do that for me. There is no "just skip it" option, as it would negatively impact my health and body to never brush my teeth.

Here are a few functional skill goal ideas:

  • Purchasing items at a store
  • What an emergency is, and what 911 is
  • Using a public restroom
  • Toileting skills, particularly wiping (this skill is sometimes skipped)
  • How to do laundry
  • What is sexually appropriate behavior, and what is not
  • What is Stranger Danger (not forgetting to teach that people we know can present a danger as well)
  • Crossing a street
  • How to rotate between topics during a conversation
  • What is personal space, and how to respect it
  • Hygiene skills, such as applying deodorant

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