Critical Mass - Building in Practice Time for Individuals with ASD - Autism Awareness
Developing long term skills for individuals with ASD

Critical Mass – Building in Practice Time for Individuals with ASD

There is a new area of study emerging in autism called critical mass which means true mastery of a skill. Critical mass 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.

Explicit instruction is required for those with ASD

Neurotypical people gain critical mass in the areas of social, communication, and basic living skills simply by implicit learning, not through being taught in school. For people with autism, they need explicit instruction in these areas throughout their school years and beyond in order to gain these skills. They won’t learn these skills without direct instruction. This is what makes the leap out of school and into employment or independence so difficult – these skills have not been mastered as they are not taught in school like academics are. Reading, writing and mathematics may be acquired upon graduation, but the social, communication and living skills pieces are missing which make a successful adulthood difficult to achieve.

To obtain critical mass, skills have to be practiced hundreds of times. Opportunities for practice can be provided at home, school, and in the community.

Here are four areas that can offer practice across a range of activities

1) Volunteering

Volunteering provides an important opportunity to prepare for the world of work. People with ASD need time and experience to build skills and feel comfortable out in the community. Volunteering within a preferred interest can help a person meet other like-minded people who share their passion for that activity.

My children began volunteering every summer at a Farmer’s Market at age 13 and 11. At that job, they learned how to report to a manager, follow simple instructions, carry out tasks in a specific order, practice conversation skills, problem solve, punctuality, and how to look presentable at a work site.

One interesting thing that happened to my son, Marc, as a result of working at the market was a broader range of foods in his diet. For year, I had been trying to add new foods without success. At the age of 16, he began to try a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. I believe this was due to repeated exposure to them at the market, getting to know the vendors/growers of the produce, and seeing the produce in a less overwhelming environment. Grocery stores have bright lights, large displays, background music and lots of people in a small area. The Market has none of those factors; displays are small and the choices are not as broad. I also think Marc took such pride in this job, that eating what he saw at work made him think about work and how much he liked the job.

Julia, now 20, is successfully volunteering at a cat care facility. She has wanted to work with cats since she was 13 years old. Because she came to that position with her experience from the Farmer’s Market, she knew how to sign in for work, report to a manager, and perform in tasks in a specific order. In essence, she had gained critical mass from the other job to be able to do this one successfully.

2) Using an Interest

Every person has interests that they enjoy and find motivating. You need to use that interest to provide multiple opportunities for skills practice.

For example, my son loves numbers. The great thing about numbers is that they are everywhere. I started using the numbers interest to teach how to use a self check-out at the grocery store, how to read a price tag, finding library books through call numbers which also taught decimals, telling time digitally, reading a gas pump, money, counting bottles for recycling – just an endless list of practical tasks. The practice of reading numbers comes up continually. As a result of this constant practice in real life situations, Marc knows his numbers into the millions now.

I see parents helping their adult child start a business based on an interest that they practice repeatedly. Brad, an 28 year old with autism from Edmonton, started a company called Made By Brad.  He loves to put furniture together and turned his interest into a business. He has had lots of practice over the years with many different projects to gain mastery of this skill.

My daughter, Julia, loves to bake, but she wants to have a purpose for baking. Her local autism society has given her the chance to come and bake for the staff one afternoon a week. They also share the treats she makes at meetings. By having this weekly baking practice, she is getting more independent with the baking process, reading and following directions, and expanding her recipe repertoire.

Schools that have kitchens could open these up for cooking practice and the creations enjoyed by others. Sitting down to a meal together creates a natural opportunity for socializing as well.

3) Chores at Home

Chores at home provide great opportunities for skills practice. One example would be sorting. You have to sort laundry, cutlery, groceries (perishables, non-perishables, cleaning products etc.), clean clothes, socks, sporting equipment, papers, photos – the list is huge. The sorting of different items helps to understand categories and how items are grouped and related. When things are in their proper place, finding them is easy and the home environment is less stressful. I wrote about how to organize the Marie Kondo way back in January. Adopting this new system has increased independence throughout our home because things are easy to find and are organized logically.

Having set chores like emptying the dishwasher provides daily practice. There is also a sense of accomplishment when things are done. Starting chores at a young age gives many years of practice to get it right. You can add more difficult chores when simpler chores are mastered. Not sure what chores your child can do? Here are some ideas to try. Chores can also be a shared experience providing an opportunity for informal socializing and conversation.

4) School

There is an endless array of activities to do in school which provide the opportunity for interaction, communication, socializing, self-regulation and skill building. Here are a few articles/websites that suggest different activities:

Activities for Preschoolers to Teens

Social, Sensory and Calming Activities

Inclusive Classroom Ideas – Paula Kluth

Life Skills Activities

The Life Skills Room

Providing opportunities to practice skills across a wide variety of contexts will eventually lead to mastery and generalization of that skill. I am seeing this happen all the time because skills practiced at home are then taken to a job or independence in self-care is increased. Remember – there is no cap on learning and it happens continually over the lifespan. I’m still learning new things all the time!

Further Reading

Excelling With Autism: Obtaining Critical Mass Using Deliberate Practice

Steps to Independence – Teaching Everyday Skills to Children with Special Needs



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  1. Theresa Futros says:

    Thanks so much for this article Maureen! Fits perfectly with the work that I’m doing here in Lord  Selkirk school division. I always appreciate your perspective!

    • Theresa, you are always on the right track! I love knowing there are other people out there working on the same things that I know firsthand to be important. I hope you are well and thriving!

  2. Lisa palasti says:

    Nice article Maureen – I like the emphasis on critical mass which we call mastery motivation in RDI. Providing 1000’s of “one step ahead challenges” in those everyday activities supports motivation for growth seeking. 

    • Lisa, thank you for taking the time to write. I did not know RDI called critical mass mastery motivation. I love learning new things and am glad to hear other programs are working on this important area.

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