Teaching Life Skills to Children with Autism Through Backward Chaining

Health Writer

You work diligently with the school district to make sure your child with autism receives the services and education he needs to become independent. You may work with a therapist and at home in developing social skills or a counselor in developing specific job skills. But what about life skills? These are the skills needed to live an independent life and include things like:

  • Shopping for food, clothing and hygiene/personal items
  • Choosing clothes and getting dressed
  • Cooking
  • Laundry
  • Personal hygiene
  • Ordering at a restaurant
  • Paying bills
  • Making healthy choices, including eating well and exercising
  • Taking medications/vitamins
  • Getting around, including driving or taking public transportation
  • Advocating for themselves

Therapists may help with these types of skills, however, many parents find that teaching and reinforcing these skills are part of family life and must be practiced consistently in order for your child with autism to be able to grow up and live independently. Therefore, even if a therapist or teacher helps, you must both work together and understand the steps needed to complete a task.

Breaking Down Tasks

Each task, no matter how small, can be broken down into steps. For example, if you are teaching how to fold a towel, you might break the task down as follows:

  • Pick up towel
  • Lay flat on a table
  • Smooth out the towel
  • Pick up two corners
  • Bring corners to opposite edge of towel
  • Smooth out the towel
  • Pick up two corners (corners will be doubled)
  • Bring corners to opposite edge of towel
  • Smooth out town
  • Pick up two corners (will have 4 pieces of material on each corner)
  • Bring corners to opposite edge of towel
  • Smooth out towel
  • Towel is now folded

You may want to take pictures of each step and put together with the written instructions so your child has both written and visual instructions for completing the task.

Backward Chaining

Some children may find it difficult to follow a long set of instructions such as this and become lost and frustrated somewhere in the middle of the task. You may find your child works better using backward chaining. This is when you reverse the directions, letting your child complete only the last step until he feels comfortable and then completing the last two steps, continuing until he can complete the task on his own.

In the example of folding a towel, you would complete every step, having your child watch you fold the towel. When you reach the last step, your child would smooth out the towel. As he feels comfortable, you would fold the towel up until the last fold and then have your child complete the last fold and smooth out the towel. Continue in this way until your child can complete all the steps.

Some children find backward chaining easier. Since they always complete the last step, there is a feeling of success after each attempt. This method can be used for chores and may reduce the level of frustration when learning new life skills and everyday tasks.


"Autism Life Skills: 10 Essential Abilities for Children with ASD," 2011, Nov. 9, Chantal Sicile-Kira, Education.com

"Life Skills for Children and Teens with Autism," 2011, Shana Lehar, North Shore Pediatric Therapy

"Teens with ASD: Life Skills," 2011, Jan. 28, Staff Writer, Talk About Curing Autism