The overriding goal for most students with disabilities is to become independent. Very often, IEP goals include the specification that skills should be demonstrated “independently.” We use this word a lot in special education, but it sometimes seems as though there are different interpretations.
To me, independent means without prompts or other assistance. It means that a skill is performed from start to finish, with no cues or guidance beyond those normally available to anyone performing this skill. To take a simple example, if all of the children in the classroom take out their reading books upon the teacher’s instruction “Please take out your reading books,” then that is what independent looks like for my student who may have autism, ADHD, or another challenge. It is not independent if my student takes out his reading book only after his one-to-one aide has repeated the instruction, or if he opens and reads from the book but the teacher took it from her own desk and handed it to him.
In some cases, a skill should only be considered independent if it occurs solely on the basis of natural environmental cues, rather than instructions. I would consider a student’s request to use the bathroom to be independent only if she makes the request in the absence of a visual cue card, teacher’s question (“Do you have to go to the bathroom?”) or any other stimulus beside the feelings of her own body.
There are other classes of behavior that involve multiple steps. To call a child’s performance in those cases independent usually requires that he can and does complete all steps independently. That might mean not only using the mouse and keyboard to play a computer game independently, but also logging onto the computer without assistance. To provide another example, packing up at the end of the day is independent only if the student performs every step in the absence of instructions or cues.
Now, I have nothing against the use of cues and prompts. I am personally dependent on a whole slew of them myself, ranging from alerts on my smart phone, calendar entries, recipes, instruction manuals, and reminders from friends and family. No one can claim complete independence in every area of life. We should be realistic, however, about what we and our students are independent in – and where independence needs to be fostered.
For students with autism, the single most important way to increase independence – across all kinds of behavior – is to associate prompts and assistance with environmental variables rather than with people. Sometimes this leads to complete independence, and sometimes to “independent enough.” When a 4th grader that I was consulting for in an inclusion setting kept forgetting to go to his music lessons during the school day, I suggested that the teacher provide a written reminder on his desk each day via a post-it note. Did this mean he was going to music lessons completely independently? No, but it was a lot better to have him rely on a written prompt than on the teacher’s verbal response. Over the course of the year, he learned to check his schedule each morning and write his own note. Once the control for the reminder came under his control, he had gained an important step in becoming independent.
Using cues such as notes, pictures, auditory reminders, and even vibrating watches, we can bring students with autism and other special needs to new levels of independence. When the reminder comes from a thing rather than a person, there exists the possibility for the student to manage the cues. When they manage their own cues, they’re acting independently.
Some other suggestions for increasing independence in students at all levels of ability include:
- Don’t talk students through activities. If a child is having difficulty staying on-task or completing a multi-step task, better strategies to promote independence are to use visual cues (gestures, lists, recipes, photos) or auditory cues (timers to indicate when to move on to the next step, or when to self-monitor).
- If it’s necessary to provide a verbal prompt, use a verbal prompt. Don’t ask a question like “What should you be doing now?” or “What did I tell you to do?” There’s very little benefit to this kind of reminder, and even if the student does respond to them, that doesn’t make him/her independent. Better to simply prompt using a clear, simple instruction like, “Please put away your toys.” If the toys don’t get put away within a short period of time, provide the next level of prompt – which may involve pointing, modeling, or gentle physical guidance to get started.
- Teach self-monitoring wherever possible. When you teach children to observe and act on their own behavior, you vastly reduce their reliance on other people. Self-monitoring can be used to increase desired behavior, like remaining on-task during academics, completing self-care and hygiene routines, and socializing with others. It can also be used to decease problematic behavior, like excessive question-asking, overeating, and other poor habits.
- Use prompts as needed, but have a plan for fading them and use it from the beginning. If students didn’t need prompts and assistance, they wouldn’t be receiving special education services. The goal, however, is to use prompts to demonstrate what they should be doing, and then to fade away those prompts – or transfer them into socially acceptable prompts, like to-do lists or notes – so that the child is not only doing what everyone else is doing, but doing it on their own.
Teaching students with special needs to a reasonable level of independence is one of the greatest gifts we can give them. Parents and teachers should be aware of the true meaning of independence, and should always strive to teach students to be as independent as possible across all skill sets.