Teaching Tuesday: Increasing Independence for Students With Autism

By Virginia Murray, M.A. Special Education, Full-Time Faculty

Student improving self awareness

Students with autism can be successful in many settings after high school, especially if they have had plenty of opportunities to become more independent throughout their school-aged years. As teachers, we have a responsibility to students with autism to assist and provide pathways for them to bolster increasing independence in their pursuits, both in furthering their education and in preparing them for future working and living situations. Helping students learn to become independent is an end goal of education.

Use Formative Experiences to Create Inclusive Classrooms

All students develop and grow throughout their formative school years. Their school and life experiences help them become more independent over time. Students with autism are no different. It takes time, practice and intentional planning of supportive activities to help these students become more independent adults.

Students who can identify their own unique strengths, interests, preferences and needs are better able to advocate for themselves and make informed choices about their own education and training, their opportunities for activities in the community, and their own independent living situations as they leave high school. In order to facilitate increased independence, teachers and caregivers can be intentional about the opportunities they provide to help students become more self-aware, make informed choices, and use tools to help themselves independently navigate their world.

Improving Self-Awareness

Self-awareness involves the ability to identify ones’ own strengths and weaknesses. It also involves the ability to identify one’s own interests and preferences. In order to facilitate a student’s ability to advocate for their own needed accommodations in a variety of settings, we need to guide them in understanding what they can do well, when to ask for help, and how to identify likes and preferences.

It takes practice and many experiences to become self-aware. By participating in a variety of activities in many different settings, students will experience success, failure and challenges. The more we can provide them with experiences and opportunities to reflect upon what they did well, what was challenging, what supports helped them, and what they do not want to experience again, the more likely students with autism will be able to internalize and communicate their strengths, weaknesses and interests (Waller, et al., 2016).

Encourage Choice-Making

When we allow students to choose activities and topics for projects, and provide opportunities for reflection, we are providing opportunities for students to engage and learn about their own strengths, interests, preferences and needs. When we help families understand the impacts of allowing their child to choose what clothes to wear, foods to eat and which chores to complete first, we are teaming with them to provide opportunities for students to explore independence.

This seems basic, but too often, teachers and families tend to make many decisions themselves as it is sometimes easier and saves time. Even allowing time for reflection can be hard as it may initially require questioning and wait time for processing information. Without having many practice opportunities, it is difficult for students with autism to communicate their personal likes, dislikes, strengths and needs. The tangible actions of participating in a variety of school, community and home activities, and reflecting on them will help students develop a sense of self and begin to understand how their strengths and interests can be incorporated into their daily lives (Elliot & Dillenburger, 2016). Understanding weaknesses and needs provides an opportunity to seek out accommodations and supports in the future (Carey, 2021).

Using Tools for Success

When we provide students with autism ways to participate in a variety of experiences that involve choices, we are developing their abilities to make decisions about their future and helping them identify the accommodations and tools they need to succeed. It is important to consider the students’ strengths and needs as well as initial training when selecting tools (Hedges et al., 2018). It can be something as easy as a smartphone or smartwatch to help them keep track of medication, appointments and maps for navigating a campus or community. Some may benefit from tablets and laptops to help them organize content and keep track of menus, banking, job applications and more. There are even apps available for problem-solving in social situations, preparing food, goal setting and more.

Independence takes practice. Students with autism benefit from intentional participation in activities that involve choice and reflection. Through many opportunities and experiences, as well as reflective practice about those activities, students with autism can become more self-aware and better able to advocate for themselves. As teachers, we can build opportunities for student development of self-awareness, choice-making and identification of the tools for success. In this way, we can empower students to become more independent and navigate the community after they leave high school.

Want more? Check out all of the articles from Teaching Tuesday and return each week for a new post. Learn more about the College of Education and our degree programs such as a Master's in Autism Spectrum Disorders, and join in our efforts to elevate the education profession. 


Retrieved from:

Carey, E. (2021). Aligning with the flow of control: A grounded theory study of choice and autonomy in decision-making practices of people with intellectual disabilities. International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-Being, 16(1). 

Elliott, C., & Dillenburger, K. (2016). The Effect of Choice on Motivation for Young Children on the Autism Spectrum during Discrete Trial Teaching. Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs, 16(3), 187–198.

Hedges, S. H., Odom, S. L., Hume, K., & Sam, A. (2018). Technology use as a support tool by secondary students with autism. Autism, 22(1), 70–79.

Waller, J., Sanford, M., Caswell T., and Bainbridge, C. 2016. “Comprehensive Social Communication Support for Improving Transitions for Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).” Perspectives of the ASHA Special Interest Groups 1 (16): 63–77. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.