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Encouraging Independence

Updated: Nov 16, 2018

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When a person has a disability, a range of skills can be affected and limit one’s ability to be independent. Sometimes these skills can be accommodated for with assistive technology tools and strategies, or remediated with direct services from a qualified clinician. Other times, solutions can be found by modifying the tasks or environments to better meet the needs of the person with a disability.

Regardless of whether you’re a child with cerebral palsy, an adult with autism, or a high schooler with learning disabilities, immeasurable value is found in maximizing, restoring, and enabling independence across the lifespan and across activities.

Occupational therapists support the skills that people need to live at their most independent level. Skills for working, playing, learning, and daily living all contribute to someone living their most purposeful, meaningful life.

Developing Skills to Live Independently

Independent Living Skills

The following are all examples of independent living skills (Independent Lifestyles)

Personal hygiene

Dressing and clothing care

Health care

Cooking, eating, nutrition

Home management and home safety

Financial management

Personal growth, awareness, and problem solving

Community access

One’s ability to be independent with these skills can directly affect self-esteem and perceptions of one’s value to the larger society as a whole.

To encourage, foster, and build independent living skills is to positively impact a person’s confidence and willingness to take risks on their own! New learning and personal growth happen through risk-taking.

Developing Independent Skills

When children are just developing cognitive, motor, social, and language skills, the expectations for independent living skills are minimal. Children at this young age cannot multi-task or problem solve in order to truly be “independent.” As parents, we set our children up for success by choosing “just right challenges” for them to feel independent and be willing to try new things on their way to new learning.

We start by asking toddlers to help with self-feeding, undressing, choice making, and basic hygiene tasks like brushing their teeth or combing their hair. Preschoolers quickly learn these basic routines and eventually develop skills to handle more multi-step, complex tasks like dressing themselves, washing hair, and taking care of personal items like coats, backpacks, and shoes.

By elementary school, independent living skills move beyond just self-care activities (bathing, dressing, feeding) to higher-level skills that will shape their abilities as adults. Maybe they engage in simple meal preparation like making their favorite PB&J sandwich, handle money to pay for their school lunch, or complete simple chores to contribute to the household management. We all started our journey to independent living with the help of these elementary activities and learned how to gradually take on responsibility while being mindful and reflective of our individual performance.

Fast forward to post-high school years when you now have the adult responsibilities of a job, car, and your own household to manage - whether it’s a dorm room shared with friends, your first rental apartment, or a paid space in your parent’s basement! You hopefully have developed enough independent living skills to manage on your own and from here on out, you’ll be refining the more complex skills of financial management, personal growth, and making long-lasting community connections.

This progression of developing independent skills is fairly consistent for all of us - give or take a few bumps in the road along the way. But when you have a disability, whether it’s a cognitive, language, social, motor-based disability, or autism, acquiring independent skills may not be as straightforward.

Programs that Encourage Functional Living Skills

When you are a child or an adult with special needs, parents and caregivers may need to consider whether or not to focus on “functional” living skills rather than “independence.” What does that mean?

If a person’s disability is such that they may not have the ability to be safe living alone or make appropriate judgment calls independently, the focus becomes on maximizing his/her independence to the most functional level.

The Alpha School in New Jersey lists their “Top 10 Essential Life Skills for Success” for people with special needs as:

  • Self-Care Skills

  • Pre-Vocational Skills

  • Daily Living Skills

  • Community-Based Instruction

  • Leisure and Recreation Skills

  • Functional Reading

  • Functional Math

  • Work-Related Behaviors

  • Shopping Skills

  • Cooking and Laundry Skills

Their “curriculum” for functional living skills is an example of how people with special needs may benefit from direct instruction in some of the very basic independent living skills that you and I developed naturally.

For example, fully functioning, independent adults hold a job and manage their finances to do a range of tasks like shopping, bill pay, savings, credit card management, and retirement planning. Some people with special needs will need the support of another trusted advisor to help with the more complex of those tasks, but the essential life skills of functional math can foster independence with shopping and community access skills (i.e. bus money, making change). People and adults with autism often learn these essential skills within the greater context or understanding that the person will likely need ongoing supervision as an adult. These skills can be part of an IEP plan and specialized instruction can support these functional goals.

When a student receives special education services under an Individualized Education Program (IEP), he/she is entitled to receive services until they turn 21 years of age, beyond graduation from high school. By the time a student turns 16, transitional programming recommendations must be made. The end goals of a transition plan are to prepare a student to be an independent young adult either by securing vocational training, pursuing postsecondary education, seeking jobs and employment, or planning for independent living. For more information on transition plans within the IEP, check out this resource from Depending on the school district’s resources and programs, some students may attend a pre-vocational transitional program between 18-21 years old to continue to target IEP skills in a different environment. For more information on transitional programs in your area, contact your child’s case manager.

Transition planning support can also be found on the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services website. Their resources include webinars, guides to the transition process, and transition activities for parents and districts to consider.

Getting a Job