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Five Barriers to Building Independence and How to Break Them 

April 14, 2022
By Brandi Timmons, MEd, BCBA, LBA 

This Spring, as part of our educational series, Westview EDU, The Westview School welcomed Brandi Timmons, Education Director at Social Motions Skills, to share her insight on "Preparing Teens for Next Steps." With 20 years of experience working with children with autism spectrum disorder and other disabilities, Brandi knows that independence plays an essential role in the success of young adults looking to achieve independent living, competitive employment in the community, and a successful future specific to their goals. Brandi identified five common barriers to building independence and provided practical tips on how best to break them. 

What is Independence? 

To start, it's important to note that independence can be defined differently based on the child. Everyone is unique with different abilities, and the level of independence that can be reached will vary from child to child. Striving for independence is something that never really stops. Independence is a growth process. 

For some, independence can be defined as "having individual autonomy, the opportunity to be actively involved in decision-making processes and the opportunity to experience the physical, social, economic and cultural environment." 

For others, "living life based on one's own goals" or "asserting control over your own life choices." 

Brandi reminds parents that there is no right or wrong definition of independence. As your child grows older and nears the teen years, you may hear the term person-centered planning. This means that whatever definition of independence you subscribe to, your child gets a say in that. Through her work with Social Motion, Brandi works with her students to build toward independence, defined as "the ability to live independently and productively in the community and live with the same freedom of choice as a non-disabled person." 

It's Never Too Early to Start Building Independence! 

Brandi finds that some parents are hesitant or don't even know what to do to start building independence. It is essential to realize that independence is a process that needs to start at a very young age. The main reason is that many skills need to be learned and practiced repeatedly. Children, especially those on the autism spectrum, need to have opportunities to practice with someone beside them to give direction and provide reinforcement. Skills may need to be broken down, and tasks analyzed into smaller pieces. Brandi emphasized that we are looking for fluency over mastery when it comes to skills that lead to independence. Mastery means that you can do a skill now; you might be able to do it next week; with a bit of practice, you may do it a month from now, but there is no guarantee that you are going to. If you have learned a skill to fluency, you never have to think about it. For our kids, it takes a lot of processing to learn a skill to fluency, so it is never too early to start. 

BARRIER #1: PROMPT DEPENDENCE 

Parents frequently use prompting and modeling as teaching tools when a child is young. Both methods are evidence-based practices for children with autism and can be quite effective. However, as a child ages, it is necessary to begin to fade the prompts, so the child learns not always to be dependent on them. A prompt-dependent child won't do what they know to do and are capable of until prompted. They may lose the motivation to try things on their own and learn to expect someone to step in and help and even complete the task. This is not ideal. In some instances, this can lead to learned helplessness, whereas a child feels like they are not capable and automatically expects someone to step in and help. "Reteaching motivation is tough," says Brandi. She encourages parents to prevent learning helplessness before it even starts. 

There are three proven ways to alleviate prompt dependence. First, begin to fade prompts as you are teaching skills. If you start with a verbal prompt, it gradually begins to fade to a visual prompt. Next, practice patience. Try to wait and not offer help before it's needed! Everyone deserves the right to try something on their own. And, finally, know what your child can do. Try not to give them something too hard. Brandi talks about "knowing that sweet spot,” and giving your child something that won't make them become overly frustrated. 

BARRIER #2: LIFE DOESN'T HAPPEN BY MAGIC! 

Have you heard the phrase, if you want something done right, do it yourself? When it comes to building independence with your child with autism, do not follow this adage. Brandi finds that more and more young adults have no idea what it takes to run a household because parents' expectations are so few. Sure, it is way easier for you to wash, dry, fold, and put away the towels, but if you don't expose your child to how things work at home, they will not learn. It may be easier to do things on your own, but you need to incorporate them into your daily routines to help them understand what makes your home run. 

A few tried, true, and simple practices Brandi shared for teaching your child about all the things it takes to manage a life are: 

- Give your child appropriate chores. 

- Set aside intentional time each week to teach new skills. 

- Be available to assist as needed. 

- Consistently talk to your child about things you do and your responsibilities. 

BARRIER #3: MASKING 

Masking is very common in autism. A child may mask to try to fit in better and as an attempt to hide their differences from others. A child may learn to copy social cues that people are doing to fit in. Masking is also called camouflaging or compensating and is an example of a social survival strategy. How does masking become a barrier to independence? In Brandi's experience, when learning employment skills or independent living skills, young adults who have adopted masking as a social survival strategy will answer "yes" to questions such as, "Do you understand?" And, would likely answer ”no” when asked, “Do you need help?" "Do you have any questions?" They try to hide that they don't understand the instructions or don't know what is going on. The result of masking in these situations is making mistakes and not meeting the expectations on the job. They need to be able to unmask and tell when they need help. 

The key to breaking the masking barrier is encouraging your child to ask for help. When you give your child directions, have them repeat instructions back to you. This way, you will know that they heard what you said. Your child will need to internalize what was instructed to repeat back to you. In addition, teach your child how to ask for help and understanding and express and talk about their emotions. All the above will help your child break the barrier of masking and will help support growth in self-advocacy and be crucial to independence and overall success. 

BARRIER #4 FALSE SENSE OF REALITY 

Parents praise their children. But sometimes, children who are praised so often just for trying their best learn to believe that just trying is good enough. This can be tricky, says Brandi, because we want our kids to try. Trying is a good thing. However, when we are talking about independence, transition, and the world of employment, sometimes trying your best is not always good enough. Jobs have expectations, and employees must meet those expectations. Both children and young adults need to learn that if they are asked to complete a task and fail that there are natural consequences and what those are. 

Brandi shared several strategies for alleviating the barrier of a false sense of reality. The first is to let them fail. Sometimes, we do our kids a disservice because we don't let them try and not succeed. Should we let them fail every time? No, it is necessary to step in and support them to be successful. Sometimes, it is in their best interest to let them do something and fail so that they learn about the consequences. Also, don't fix everything. As parents, we are sometimes quick to jump in and fix things for our children. Resist the temptation. Also, talk and teach your child about natural consequences. Use examples from your own life. What happens if you don't complete a task? What would happen if you didn't put gas in your car? What are the consequences of not going to the dentist or brushing your teeth? Implementing these strategies can help your child understand how to work toward meeting expectations and what the consequences are when you fail. 

BARRIER #5 LACK OF PROBLEM-SOLVING SKILLS 

Problem-solving is a key component to independence. Brandi sees many young adults who have not learned how to solve problems on their own. Not knowing what to do can sometimes result in doing nothing. They don't know what to do next and they don't know who to ask for help. Problem-solving is a skill that doesn't happen overnight. Children with ASD learn through direct instruction and experience with problem-solving. Brandi used an example of our brains being like a filing cabinet. Our filing cabinets are filled up by themselves as we grow and learn, but children with autism need help to fill their filing cabinets. They need us to create the files and put the information in there. As parents, we need to create situations for them to problem solve and put information in their file so later, when they experience something similar, they have the knowledge to pull back on and relate to a situation. It is crucial to start teaching problem-solving when your children are small. 

When thinking of strategies to alleviate the barrier of lack of problem-solving, Brandi used the term "intentionally sabotage." While to "intentionally sabotage" your child may go against your parenting instincts, what it means is when you have a situation going on, you leave out a piece. Brandi shared an example of asking your child to set the table but intentionally making sure there are no forks in the silverware drawer. Some kids may do nothing and set the table without forks or scream to their mom for help. A parent's response should teach that if the forks are not in the silverware drawer, where to look, and then walk through the steps to solve the problem. These situations can be as complex or easy as you want; take out a step and help them to solve the problem. It is helpful to talk through problem-solving strategies with your child, don't just give them the answer or fix all their problems. Teach them the steps. It also may benefit them to model problem solving for them. 

Brandi stressed that the important thing for parents to remember is that independence is a process! From children to young adults, independence looks different for everyone. If you have a definition of independence specific for your child and know the goal, you will be able to step back and start working towards it. As a parent, realize that no matter where you are on the independence journey for your child, start today. You can choose one easy strategy to implement and begin moving your child toward a future of success and independence. 

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Brandi Timmons, M.Ed, BCBA, LBA is a Licensed Board-Certified Behavior Analyst and a TEA certified special educator. She has almost 20 years of experience working with individuals with autism - 14 of those in public school classrooms. She is currently working as an educational consultant for the alliance with Social Motion and The Center for Pursuit. Her talents include writing social skills curricula and producing educator and parent training. One of her passions is creating new programs to serve those in the autism community. She has been published in Autism Parenting Magazine, served as co-principal investigator on several research initiatives in conjunction with the University of Houston, and is a national conference speaker. When she isn't working, you'll find her spending time doing her other favorite things - riding horses and gardening. 

This blog post was adapted from the presentation given during WestviewEDU on Thursday, March 3, 2022. WestviewEDU is an education series presented by The Westview School for parents and caregivers of children with autism spectrum disorder. For a full list of WestviewEDU sessions for 2021/2022 academic calendar year, visit The Westview School online.