Verbal Behavior Center for Autism: Teaching an Adolescent with Autism Functional Living Skills

I have had the privilege of working with Josh as his Applied Behavior Analysis Therapist for nearly a year and a half. Whether giving Josh a congratulatory high-five, playfully chasing him up the stairs, or listening to his infectious laugh, not a day passes that working with Josh hasn't brought me a measure of joy.

As a non-speaking, 12 year-old with autism, Josh’s limited verbal skills make communication difficult. His lack of, and limited understanding of verbal communication has unfortunately led to aggressive behaviors culminating in broken drywall, shattered glass, and injuries to both Josh and others. Finding ways to communicate with him has proven a challenge. However, Josh’s team and I have identified that he can effectively communicate by matching typed or written words to objects. This strength has been harnessed to decrease Josh’s aggressive behavior and expand upon his independent functional living skills.

The skill of grocery shopping –gathering items from a list while demonstrating no negative behaviors- was specifically identified as a goal in order for Josh to become more independent in caring for his own needs. Breaking the goal down into separate skills, each one building on the previous, would allow Josh to shop with progressively more and more independence.

The first step in the teaching process consisted of presenting Josh with grocery items in his Therapy room. Showing Josh a typed word for each grocery item and extending my hand indicated that I wanted him to hand me the corresponding grocery item. Lots of reinforcement and dozens of learning opportunities saw most grocery items mastered in little time.

For the second step of the process we relocated to a simulated supermarket with grocery items set up on a series of shelves, stocked on makeshift aisles with personal care goods in one area, cookies and crackers in another, breakfast foods on a different shelf, and frozen and refrigerated items in a final area. In addition, a shopping cart was introduced and Josh was taught to add items to the cart when he found them. Soon, Josh was moving among the "grocery aisles" with his cart like a pro.

In the weeks since teaching Josh how to independently grocery shop, I have accompanied him into the community where he has shopped in the grocery store, his mother beside him, while he correctly places items into his cart. I have continued to introduce additional grocery items for him to learn, expanding upon this independent repertoire. Additionally, I have increased expectations by introducing handwritten labels (versus typed labels), requiring Josh to shop more systematically by specific aisles, and teaching Josh to ask for help when he cannot independently find items.

I have truly enjoyed the process of teaching Josh how to independently grocery shop. His smile, often accompanied by infectious laughter, continues to bring me joy. Now his smiles and laughter often occur while grocery shopping and learning other new skills. For Josh, a job well done is its own reward.

Chris Pelletier

ABA Therapist at the Verbal Behavior Center for Autism

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