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Independence Building Example: Dishes

Autism and Independence, Part 3: Implementation

“The loving mother teaches her child to walk alone. She is far enough from him so that she cannot actually support him, but she holds out her arms to him. She imitates his movements, and if he totters, she swiftly bends as if to seize him, that the child might believe that he is not walking alone...her face beckons like a reward, an encouragement. Thus, the child walks alone with his eyes fixed on his mother’s face, not on the difficulties in his way. He supports himself by the arms that do not hold him and constantly strives toward the refuge in his mother’s embrace, little suspecting that in the very same moment that he is emphasizing his need of her, he is proving that he can do it without her, because he is walking alone. -Kierkegaard

In Part 2 of our independence series, we focused on creating a list of skills that the person with autism is already independent in doing as well as a list of skills that the person is not yet able to complete independently. In this post, we’ll discuss how to take one task, break it down, and then build independence.

I love using chores as a way to build life and independence skills because they are things that need done by everyone on a daily basis and are foundational to independent living. For this example, we will use unloading the dishwasher. The way that I like to suggest dishwasher unloading is as a cooperative, co-regulatory task (if you want to learn more about co-regulation, look up co-regulation and RDI).

For the purpose of this illustration, I will guide you through setting up the unloading task for someone who is unable to do any unloading currently. You can choose the correct starting point for your situation.

  1. Unload the dishwasher by yourself and without your apprentice present, with the exception of the silverware.

  2. Situate yourself and your apprentice near the dishwasher. You should control the silverware (remove and hold the silverware compartment from your dishwasher if possible) and your apprentice should be near the silverware drawer. Minimize or completely eliminate verbal communication so that this does not get in the way of the interaction. Doing this will also automatically reduce your prompting.

  3. Hand your apprentice one piece of silverware and wait. See if he puts it away. If he does not, point to the drawer where silverware belongs. If that is not helpful, open the drawer and point to where the piece of silverware belongs. Wait at least 30 seconds for a response. If the apprentice puts the silverware in the drawer correctly, nod yes/smile, and then hand him another piece. Repeat until all the silverware is put away. Spotlight (draw attention to) your apprentice’s success with a very brief phrase (I handed you the silverware and you put it away; We put the clean silverware away, etc.).

  4. If you were not able to move through the items indicated in #3, and your apprentice does not place the first piece (or any subsequent pieces of silverware) correctly, shake your head no and point to the location it does belong. See if your apprentice can make a repair. If not, take the piece out of the slot yourself, hand it to your apprentice, and then point at (or even touch, if needed), the correct location and allow your apprentice to place the item in that slot. Nod yes/smile, and then hand your apprentice another piece of silverware (same item, if possible–fork, fork, etc.). After the apprentice is understanding and engaging in the pattern of taking the item from you and then placing it properly, add variation by giving a different type of silverware (spoon, knife, etc.). If the apprentice puts the silverware in the drawer correctly, nod yes/smile, and then hand him another piece. Repeat until all the silverware is put away. Spotlight (draw attention to) your apprentice’s success with a very brief phrase (I handed you the silverware and you put it away; We put the clean silverware away, etc.).

  5. End the task for that day.

As soon as your apprentice is competent with the level of dishwasher unloading described above, make the task more challenging for the next session. Likewise, if your apprentice struggled with the task outlined above, make the task easier the next time (reduce the number of items to put away and/or reduce the types of items to put away–do spoons only, for example).

When you are ready to move forward, unload the dishwasher except for the silverware and one other type of item (bowls, plates, cups, etc.). Repeat the procedure above, bringing the apprentice in when you are ready for the unloading together. Remain as nonverbal as possible, use wait time so that your apprentice has time to think about what to do next, and spotlight the success and independence (briefly) at the end of the interaction.

Continue in the fashion described above until you and your apprentice are unloading the full dishwasher. After this, you can continue to elaborate the framework together by engaging in a role reversal, where the apprentice stands at the dishwasher and hands you items to put away. For problem solving practice, you can even make some ‘mistakes’ with placement to allow opportunities for your apprentice to correct you.

When your apprentice is competent in unloading the dishwasher with you, both in the roles of receiver of the items and as sender of the items, you are ready to transfer this task to full independence.

For this step, show your apprentice how to know that the dishwasher is ready to be unloaded (green light comes on, etc.). Tell your apprentice that he is now ready to unload the dishwasher independently. For the first time, stay nearby so that you can assist if needed, but don’t intervene unless your apprentice asks you for assistance. It may help you to do something else while nearby so that you don’t overly engage. If your apprentice needs help, try to provide the least assistance possible for success and limit your verbal communication. Use gestures and pointing instead, if you can. When your apprentice is finished, you will want to spotlight that he unloaded the dishwasher independently. Then, focus on ensuring that your apprentice has this opportunity often and make it a regular chore. Not only will this create ample opportunity for practice, but it will build the competence and independent living skills of the apprentice while he also fulfills a role in contributing to the running of the family and household.

Finally, continue to elaborate this newfound independence. Logical next steps are preparing items to go into the dishwasher, loading the dishwasher, inserting soap, programming the dishwasher, and appraising when it is time to run the dishwasher. Each of these steps can be guided in the way described above, moving your student toward full independence with the dish washer.

“...If the teacher in such a system were to have a motto, it would surely be, ‘where before there was a spectator, let there now be a participant.’ The teacher sets the games, provides a scaffold to assure the child’s ineptitude can be rescued or rectified and then removes the scaffold part by part as the reciprocal structure can stand on its own.”

-Jerome Bruner

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