Breaking Down Tasks into Manageable Steps for Autistic Individuals
Tasks that might look simple to do or appear self-explanatory may not be so for autistic individuals. Every day activities like taking a bath, getting dressed, doing laundry, washing hands or brushing teeth are more complicated than we realize and need to be completed in a sequence. Autistic people often need direct instruction on how to do tasks and may not learn them by watching other people do them. In addition to direct instruction, there needs to be multiple times to practice in order to gain critical mass. Critical mass, true mastery of a skill, is the point where an individual has gained enough information to be successful in situations, activities, or skills for which instruction has not been provided. When there has been enough instruction and multiple experiences, a tipping point can occur and the person can apply the skill in many new ways. This is called generalization, and it doesn’t happen right away.
Breaking down a skill into smaller, much more manageable tasks/steps is called task analysis. This allows for practice of a smaller step, and then over time chaining together multiple steps together until the person can complete the task successfully. Cathy Pratt, Director of the Indiana Resource Center for Autism says, “Having an understanding of all the steps involved for a particular task can assist in identifying any steps that may need extra instruction and will help teach the task in a logical progression.”
Let’s explore some common questions about this topic.
How do I develop a task analysis?
There are 4 methods of developing a tasks analysis:
- Observe competent individuals who have demonstrated expertise and document the steps.
- Consult experts or professional organizations with this expertise in validating the steps of a required task.
- The person teaching the skill performs the task themselves and document steps.
- Do trial and error in which an initial task analysis is generated and then refined through field tests (Cooper, Heron, Howard, 2020).
A couple of other ideas would be to watch an expert do the task via a video, or have a family member complete it and watch them. When a family member does the task, you can teach the skill according to how the family typically performs these tasks.
After watching and completing the task a few times, write down each step needed to complete the task. The more steps that are created to put into the task analysis, the easier it will be to understand which steps the person can complete on their own and which ones may be more difficult and require additional support. Always take into consideration the skill level of the person, their age, communication and processing abilities, and prior experiences in performing the task.
Once the steps are known, what do I do with them?
Once the steps are determined, have the person start the task analysis and document what the person was able to complete and what steps required extra support. You can do this one of two ways. With single opportunity data, collect information on each step correctly performed in the task analysis. Once a mistake is made, data collection stops and no further steps are examined. For multiple opportunity data collection, progress is documented on each step regardless of whether the performance was correct or not. Either one of these methods provides insight into those steps a person can perform and where additional training or support is needed.
The steps can be taught through either forward or backward chaining. Forward chaining is when you teach the first step of the sequence and typically don’t move on until that step is mastered. For example, if you are teaching handwashing, the first step is to turn on the faucet, beginning with the cold handle then using the hot handle to adjust the temperature. (This step will depend on the type of faucet as the handle may not be a double one, but a single one. Ours vary throughout our home so we had to teach each one separately). The good thing about forward teaching is the person learns the logical sequence of a task from beginning to end.
In backward chaining, the last step is taught first. The previous step isn’t be taught until the final step is learned. Sometimes it is more motivating to teach the last step first because finishing a task is the most rewarding. There may also be a natural reward for completing the last step first – ex. I have my jacket on so now I can go outside and play.
Total task teaching is when the entire skill is taught and support is provided or accommodations made for steps that are difficult. The good thing about this strategy is the person is able to learn the entire routine without interruptions and can independently complete any steps that have been previously mastered.
What do you do if mistakes are made or a person gets stuck?
Mistakes are a part of the learning process. When mistakes happen, provide prompts. Prompts can be physical such as hand over hand or they can be verbal. Verbal prompts may be more difficult to understand because you have to be able to visually see what the person is instructing you to do. Neither of my children did well with verbal prompts. There is also the option to model the task yourself or use visual supports that show the sequence of the task.
Video modeling is also a great way to visually teach tasks. I’ve written about this extensively in a blog post.
Because everyone’s learning process is individualized and can vary depending on the task (we all do certain things better than others), you may need to break a skill down further is a step is not being mastered. You can make changes in the task analysis as progress happens.
There is no right or wrong in task analysis and every person will have their own learning style. Some tasks may be harder to master than others. A pre-requisite skill may be needed in order to complete a task analysis successfully. As an adult figure skater, I needed to learn how to do inside and outside edges before I could start to do three turns.
Providing opportunities to practice learned skills across a wide variety of contexts will eventually lead to mastery and generalization of that skill. I seeing this happening all the time with own two adult children because skills practiced and learned at home are later taken to a job or their independence in self-care increases. Remember – there is no cap on learning and it happens continually over the lifespan. Breaking down tasks into manageable steps make learning a new skill more accessible and less overwhelming.
Pratt, C. & Steward, L. (2020). Applied behavior analysis: The role of task analysis and chaining.
M. Michael. (2020). Breaking Down Tasks. In Bloom Autism Services
(June 2023). Everyday skills for autistic children and teenagers. Raising Children – The Australian Parenting Website
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