Self-care skills are a crucial part of growing up, they are needed to be able to function independently in society. For neurotypical children it's often a natural progression throughout their development. There doesn’t seem to be a need to have an overly huge focus or emphasis on it. A lot of the time self-help skills are developed when they are age appropriate, from observing others, simple reminders, or through demonstrations. But, for neurodiverse children, self-help skills don’t just magically occur as a part of growing up.
My daughter has cerebral palsy and autism so it can be difficult to determine how much her autism affects her self-care skills. Her motor skills are so severely affected by her physical diagnosis, which makes it hard to gauge. It is evident however that her sensory challenges and ability to keep emotionally regulated play a part.
I think it can be quite easy for us parents to get in the habit of just doing things for our children when there are delays involved, even if it’s not intentional.
Mum life can be pretty hectic at the best of times and although we do our best, sometimes we have our days where its quicker and faster to help. Think of the madness in the morning, particularly when you’re trying to get a truckload of children out the door in time for school (slight exaggeration for dramatic effect!), I simply don’t have the time and sometimes patience to wait for an already heightened autistic child to try to put their socks on themselves. Especially when one tiny crease in them erupts into meltdown mode. But its super important to take them time to ensure your child can learn basic self-help and self-care skills.
Autism and self-care skills
Now while I haven’t conducted my own top notch data research on how autism directly affects self-care skills and to what degree, other studies, and my own observed experience (through my daughter and Early Childhood teaching days) have proven there to be a link between the delay or struggle in this area for autistic children.
So, it poses the question.
How does Autism affect self-care skills?
- a gap between intellectual functioning and adaptive functioning. Their ability to organise thoughts, plan, reason, learn and problem solve interferes with their day-to-day capability for daily living skills.
- they don’t just learn by observing others. Neurotypical children are often able to learn through observations and imitating their parents. For example, simply watching their parents brush their teeth since they were little is enough to teach them about how to brush their own teeth.
-the need for different explanatory instructions, a lot of autistic children require new tasks to be explicitly broken down into steps and rely on visuals to assist with learning.
- get easily overwhelmed and frustrated when learning new skills. Therefore, when learning self-care skills their emotions can get the better of them and they may begin to refuse to try.
- easily distracted and can have difficulty focusing on a task
-communication struggles, not having the expressive language needed to be able to ask questions
-delay in motor skills which can impact many self-help tasks
-sensory challenges, for example dislike the texture of toothpaste. This would impact their ability to brush their teeth competently and sufficiently
6 important self-care skills for children with autism
Self-care skills are important for daily living and independence along with maintaining overall health and wellbeing. When children begin to develop self-care skills it increases their self-esteem and confidence in all environments.
Due to autism being a spectrum with a range of severities and challenges for everyone, self-care skills will look differently for each person. Below are 6 important self-care skills that are often a common goal for families.
-Brushing teeth. Sensory issues can make this a challenging task for some children on the spectrum so this is one that would need to be addressed sooner rather than later. Try different pastes and brushes, perhaps a vibrating toothbrush may make the experience more satisfying.
-Expressing needs and wants. This is important so that if they need assistance with tasks or self-help skills, they can communicate these needs. Things like understanding when they are thirsty and need a drink is a very important skill to learn.
-Getting dressed. Having the ability to dress themselves appropriately is not only an important life skill but it can increase confidence and self-awareness.
-Toileting. Toileting is a big milestone that can be quite difficult to master but it develops a huge sense of independence and confidence.
-Feeding. Autism can present feeding problems such as food selectivity, sensory aversions, and anxiety. Being able to feed themselves however is an important self-care skill regardless.
-Asking for help. Being able to advocate for themselves and ask for assistance when needed is a super important and crucial self-care skill for autistic children to master. For example, my daughter has just started communicating with her teacher aides when she is feeling overwhelmed by the noise at school. She asks to go in the learning support room. Prior to having this skill, she would just get heightened and worked up and often I was needing to come and pick her up from school as she was too stressed.
Tips to assist with teaching autistic children self-care skills.
-Prioritise what is most achievable and start with that first
-Give extended time for them to process each step, be super patient
-Break each skill down into steps
-Help them with all steps and then get them to perform the final step, keep building on this
-Introduce self-care into their daily routine
-Give explicit instructions using simple language
-Use visuals to guide them through the steps
-Make a social story to explain the self-care task
-Use prompts that are gradually removed
While a diagnosis of autism may impact a child’s ability to learn self-care skills, it does not mean that’s it something that they won’t be able to learn. Consistency, patience, and practice are key, if you are worried with this aspect of your child’s therapist is useful to perhaps make this a strong focus. Providing multiple opportunities to practice self-care tasks using strategies that support their learning will hopefully bring the confidence they need to keep striving for independence.