We Help People And Families Affected By Autism

Shakespeare and Showering: Skills for High School

Tom Hays, PhD, educational director of a private high school, said parents are surprised when he says that adaptive skills are more important than some basic high school information, such as Shakespeare or the Krebs Cycle. Dr. Hays works at Franklin Academy, a day and boarding school for students with autism spectrum disorder [ASD] and nonverbal learning disability school in East Haddam, Conn. Franklin includes instruction in adaptive and social skills, along with the typical college preparatory courses.

“We teach the skills you have to have to get along with others, take care of yourself, and self-advocacy,” Dr. Hays said. Instruction may range from daily living skills, such as personal hygiene, to more complex dating and relationship skills, he said.

“I have kids with a 145 IQ who walk into my classroom, and they stink,” he said. They may think taking a shower means standing under a stream of water for a few seconds and nothing more, he said. Fortunately, Franklin has a curriculum that teaches how they should bathe by breaking it down into concrete steps, such as how to use soap and how long to stand under the water.

“For our population, you have to do really explicit teaching,” Dr. Hays said. One cannot assume that children on the spectrum “will pick up a skill by osmosis or will be able to imitate the skill after watching someone once. What we find is that with more nuanced and sophisticated skills, students have to be taught very explicitly and sequentially how to perform the skill.”

Franklin even includes instruction on the complexities of social and relationship skills. “Dating is a big issue for our kids. They are clueless when it comes to dating: What does it mean to be in a relationship? What are the norms or conventions in terms of social expectations? We have to explicitly teach those skills.”…

What you may not learn in high school

There are certain skills that these kids are not given through the high school, and it’s difficult to transition from high school to independent living with this huge section of training missing.

Jennifer Cuff understands the need to teach and provide opportunities for practicing adaptive skills. She is both the mother of a daughter with Asperger’s syndrome [now known as autism spectrum disorder] and also an adult service coordinator for a disability-services agency in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

“There are certain skills that these kids are not given through the high school, and it’s difficult to transition from high school to independent living with this huge section of training missing,” said Mrs. Cuff, a member of the Simons Simplex Collection autism research project.

Like many parents, she taught her daughter, Elizabeth, 20, skills such as clipping coupons, shopping, preparing meals, taking the bus to work, and taking care of the family cat. She wanted to give her daughter a chance to practice those skills without constant supervision. So she left Liz home alone for a week while the rest of the family moved into a recreational vehicle parked just 15 minutes away. Liz’s grandmother lives around the corner, so a relative could reach [Liz] quickly if a problem arose. But none did. Mrs. Cuff checked on Liz during the week, and she was fine.

Ultimately, when one assesses the so-called “functioning level” of a person with autism, his or her adaptive skills may be far more important than his [or her] academic achievements. [Autism expert] Dr. Peter Gerhardt said he has had clients with above average IQs who “spend all day in their parents’ basements playing video games,” don’t bathe, and don’t interact with others. He also has had clients with intellectual disability who have jobs in the community. “In that scenario, the guy with the lower IQ is the higher functioning guy,” he said.

That is why he emphasizes the importance of teaching adaptive skills to everyone with ASD.

This partial reprint is reproduced with permission of Kennedy Krieger Institute, Baltimore, Md.

The entire article is entitled Daily Living Skills: A Key to Independence for People with Autism (© 2007–2018 Kennedy Krieger Institute)

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