Help Your Teen With Autism Build Essential Life Skills

A few essential life skills will make a big difference for your teen with autism. But how do you even get started? You might already be on your way, says an expert BCBA from Healing Haven.

As a parent who never passes up a teaching opportunity, Jamie McGillivary loves vending machines because they offer the chance to teach essential life skills.

“I was showing a child how to use a vending machine and the person behind us was shocked. She said she’d never seen anyone teach a child how to use a vending machine,” she recalls. “It’s not first and foremost in the minds of most parents of typical children because they assume they will assimilate those skills.”

Children with autism have the ability to learn essential life skills, but some need more direct instruction to master laundry, shopping, paying for items, setting the table, cooking and the many activities necessary to live partially or fully independent adult lives. ABA therapy teams skilled at supporting older children and teens — like at Healing Haven in Madison Heights where McGillivary is President and Founder — know how to break down skills into small tasks that kids can master.

Consider the skills needed to use a vending machine. “It’s not just about using the machine, but about making a choice and understanding the concept of money and value. What happens if you push the wrong numbers? Can you find a choice that works with your food allergies and preferences?” McGillivary says. “There are an infinite number of teaching opportunities that can go into this. It’s a global process — but can be broken down to sub-skills.”

All parents want their kids to build independence, but it’s tempting to assume they know more than they do about how to complete a task. “Parents can learn how to take bigger skills and break them to down to bite-sized pieces,” she says. “If they get stuck on a step, it’s typically because there’s another sub-step involved that you are missing.”

In ABA therapy, when a child struggles toward independence, therapists seek to discover which sub-skills are missing and fill the gaps to build success — and this is especially important for essential life skills.

Never too early to start

If, for instance, the final project is to make dinner, the teen with autism will need to know more than kitchen skills. They’ll need to know how to plan from the beginning and stay focused. “Grocery shopping can be overwhelming, even for neurotypical people,” McGillivary says.

Find opportunities to help your child learn and practice essential life skills that are needed to complete many daily projects — and you don’t need to wait until your child is a teen to start. “From an early age, you can help your child learn to follow a routine or a schedule and use a list — eventually how to make their own list, how to prioritize and how to get from point A to point B. These are all important for every life skill,” she adds.

You may need help getting started and that’s when ABA therapy can really help, even to help you set realistic expectations.

“First and foremost, recognize that you have a goal, and think about the many tiny goals that build up to that point. Work with your provider to select goals that build on each other to get to that bigger picture. If your child is already 17 or 18, but you have missed some foundational goals, there are ways to fill in the gaps with the help of your BCBA,” McGillivary says.

Remember, your child is an individual. With your help, your child will master skills at their own pace.

“Not everyone will attain complete independence, but there are opportunities for every child to master skills appropriate for them. So it’s important to know what that looks like,” McGillivary says. “You can have open conversations with your provider to know what to aim for. Your child may be nonverbal, so won’t be able to set up their own doctor appointments, but they may be able to make their own grilled cheese sandwiches.”

Essential life skills include social interactions and safety

When you’re prioritizing which essential life skills you’d like your child, tween or teen to master, start with the skills that will help your child communicate and have social interactions. “But safety should be prioritized, too,” she says.

“They should be able to share with someone their name, phone number and address because these are sub-skills they’ll need for other important skills they’ll practice if they go out and about,” she says.

Next, work on tasks that are socially significant to your own family. “Helping families recognize what skills are important for them is a hallmark of ABA therapy. We know it’s important to have conversations with families early on and lay the foundation so families understand their child won’t be 3 years old forever,” McGillivary says.

Culturally, some families prioritize caring for their children well into adulthood regardless of whether they have autism, so it’s important to balance providing for your child and helping them gain skills they’ll need to have some level of independence as they get older — and provide plenty of opportunities for practice while they are still young.

Get your child’s buy-in for other skills they’d like to learn and let them know they have a say, even with chores around the house. “A child may have an aversion to loud noises, so learning to vacuum may not be where to start. But they can learn how to set the table.”

Keep your child’s preferences in mind and understand that “practice makes progress,” says McGillivary. “You’re building baby steps, one on top of the next, and you’ll look back to see all the gains your child has made. It’s our job as parents, regardless of diagnosis. If you’re not working with someone who understands how to take tiny skills and shape them into bigger goals, find someone who can help you do that.”

Not all ABA therapy centers work with older children and teens, so ask questions before you start to work with a therapy team. No matter what, don’t wait to start building essential life skills with your child.

“It’s never too soon to start laying foundational skills to live an independent life,” McGillivary says.

Learn more about the unique services for children and teens at Healing Haven in Madison Heights. Visit


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