Teaching adults with autism is a complex subject. Because every individual with autism is different, you must tailor your instruction to the needs of each person. Some adults might have had straight As in school, but can’t remember to brush their teeth. Other adults might not be able to speak, but can learn daily routines and schedules. By focusing on goals, breaking down tasks into individual steps, and providing verbal, visual and tactile instruction, you can teach the functional skills that adults with autism need for more independent living.
Providing a Learning Environment
If you are providing classroom instruction or private sessions, or if you’re a caregiver or parent of an adult with autism, there are some general guidelines to follow when teaching adults with autism. One major point to address is the adult’s learning style and what you can do to minimize distractions and improve conditions for learning. For example, Temple Grandin, a professor at Colorado State University -- who also has autism – states that loud noises and fluorescent lights can be distracting for individuals with autism. She suggests using light from windows to avoid fluorescent light, and putting down a carpet or rug to avoid noise from chairs being pushed across the floor. Grandin also mentions different learning styles. For example, some students can sing better than they speak, so singing instructions might improve a response from an adult with autism. Other people with autism are visual learners, so demonstrating actions or using pictures will improve learning words and their meanings.
Teaching Functional Skills
As a child with autism transitions to adulthood, instruction becomes less about academic, conceptual learning and more about teaching daily life skills that are immediately helpful and practical, according to Autism Beacon. These skills are meant to increase independence for an adult with autism, and they include basic self-help skills, such as getting dressed, hygiene, toileting and grooming. To teach these skills, pick one or two tasks to focus on at a time. To teach bathing, for example, first give direct instructions for removing clothing and turning on the water in the shower. Once the adult masters those skills, add more steps of the bathing process. Continue to raise expectations until the adult can carry out the task on his own. Move on to focus on another functional skill.
Teaching High-Functioning Adults
Adults who might have average or above average IQs might not remember how to set an alarm clock or organize a workspace. While these adults might be able to speak and write, they might also have difficulty understanding abstract concepts or complex verbal directions. To teach these adults, you need to focus on skills or academic ideas you want them to learn, but you should break each item down into concrete steps and directions. If an adult with autism doesn’t seem to understand a direction, try rephrasing the question or comment. Use short sentences and avoid idioms and sarcasm. Be as concrete as possible. For example, if you observe an inappropriate behavior, don’t remark, “Why did you do that?” Instead, say, “I do not like how you yelled out the answer without raising your hand. Please raise your hand before speaking.”
Assisting Non-Verbal Adults
Other adults on the autism spectrum might not have higher-functioning skills, and they might even be non-verbal. In these cases, you must find ways the adult can learn. Grandin mentions many non-verbal adults cannot handle visual and auditory input at the same time. To address this issue, focus on either a visual or auditory task. Grandin also mentions non-verbal adults learn better through a sense of touch. For example, teach letters by encouraging students to touch plastic letters. Get adults ready for a transition in their schedule by letting them feel an object, such as a spoon to indicate it is nearly time for lunch.
- Indiana Institute on Disability and Community: Teaching Tips for Children and Adults With Autism; Temple Grandin, Ph.D.
- Autism Beacon: Functional Skills for People on the Autism Spectrum
- Interactive Autism Network: Daily Living Skills: A Key to Independence for People With Autism
- Online Asperger Syndrome Information and Support Center: Tips for Teaching High-Functioning People With Autism
- Macsnap/iStock/Getty Images