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Parents, Become THE Developer of Life Skills When There Are Different Abilities

Updated: Apr 8

By Karen Kaplan, MS

Are you a parent who nurtures independence? Have you gathered as much knowledge as possible about your child’s strengths and differences? Have you been able to let go of other people’s biased opinions? Are you developing a professional and collaborative voice?

I hope you are learning the art of negotiation, finding support in others who can connect to your journey, and becoming a great detective who finds the solutions you need. Most of all, I hope you are becoming the developer of life skills for your loved one, who someday will be living without you.


Here are some ideas on how you might become that developer of life skills:

  1. Develop a team that approaches from different perspectives, identifying strengths and differences used in developing a plan to nurture independence. (Speech Delay Therapist, Occupational Therapy, Physical Therapist, ABA Therapy, Educational Specialist, Developmental Delay Pediatrician, Nutritionist, Sleep Consultant)

  2. Let go of the thinking that your individual is too young and cannot possibly perform or understand the task. There is always a place to start teaching. Expecting at least one step within a job to be completed independently is a step forward. Examples include brushing teeth, washing hands, taking clothing out of the drawer, putting a pillow on a newly made bed, putting a plate on the table, carrying one item from grocery shopping into the house and putting it away, putting dirty clothing in a basket, putting one thing into their school lunch box.

  3. Find ways to stop doing for, thinking for, and problem-solving for them. Teach them to turn off the lights in a room, bring out the garbage can on the day of pick up, where grocery items are located in the store, how to open and close drawers, hang up clothing, pick up toys, to open the washer or dryer door and put an article of clothing into it, how to open the mailbox and take the mail into the house and how to vacuum their room.

  4. Ensure the Individual Education Plan (IEP) has goals for nurturing independence. Often, parents and teachers get stuck on basic curriculum goals and forget the areas of life skills. Make sure your individual’s IEP has goals addressing life skills, including communication, social, problem-solving, hygiene, and executive functioning skills. Make certain goals are meaningful.

  5. Read this book to help with emotional conversations: Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High, Third Edition: Grenny, Joseph, Patterson, Kerry, McMillan, Ron, Switzler, Al, Gregory, Emily: 9781260474183: Amazon.com: Books.

  6. Find ways to teach communication skills. They could use their voice and a talker, phone, sign language, pictures, or gestures to greet people, say good-bye to others, and ask for help at home, in a store, or at school. It is up to you to model, take time, and expect them to communicate.

  7. Life skill developers teach positive social skills, too. Start with early intervention to help them be social beings. Remembering birthdays with a homemade card or email to someone can help. Teaching them to say hello to a neighbor when outside is helpful. Engaging them in planning their own birthday party helps. Teaching them different ways to use their voice is essential. We use quiet voices in a movie, at the doctor’s office, art gallery, museum, coffee shop, library, and other places we go inside. We wait quietly in line at the store. At the park, we share space and let others climb the slide or have a turn on a swing. Have them share a chore with a sibling, learning cooperation.

  8. Play games with them early to build patience, social skills, communication, motor planning, etc. Perhaps separating puzzle pieces and teaching them the puzzle gets put together with another person. This teaches teamwork.

  9. Living an adult life means developing connections with others. So, help them discover their interests while developing curiosity. What do they look at, laugh at, engage in, and show curiosity about? Expand those. What we become curious about, we might explore and eventually develop greater knowledge about. Those then lead to our social group engagement with those of like interests, careers, hobbies, and, of course, volunteer opportunities.

  10. Learn how to break tasks down into manageable steps. Task Analysis in Special Education: How to Deconstruct a Task (theradiantspectrum.com) to be a developer of life skills.

  11. Learn how to use the Social Story Strategy to teach comprehension and prepare an individual for different activities. Home - Carol Gray - Social Stories (carolgraysocialstories.com)

  12. Add a First/Then strategy to approach your individual who gets stuck. Using ABA to Motivate Your Child With the First/Then Approach - Kyo (kyocare.com)

  13. Ensure you know all procedures for developing an effective Individual Transition Plan (ITP). Goals should address developing skills that support living, working, and socializing in their communities. Make sure all parties involved in long-term planning are invited to the ITP. Schools may not be able to ask outside parties, but you can.


For free resources on managing diagnoses, mobility, and accessibility support, self-advocacy, personal rights, educational rights, occupational therapy, mental health support, schools and camps, transitioning to adulthood, job opportunities, financial planning, supporting the family/caretakers, subscribe to Exceptional Needs Today. Subscribing to our award-winning e-magazine is free, and it enables us to connect with more readers, helping us support the special needs community more effectively. We publish a new issue every quarter - delivered straight to your email.


Parents, it is truly up to you. You are your individual’s lifelong developer of independence. The school is a part of the journey but will not be there long-term. Become knowledgeable about creating the most effective ITP (1.71) What is an individual transition plan (ITP)? – SERR – Special Education Rights and Responsibilities (disabilityrightsca.org) (Individual Transition Plan) You must also gather knowledge from the Department of Developmental Services Home - CA Department of Developmental Services The Department of Rehabilitation Home Page - CA Department of Rehabilitation on living opportunities and employment readiness opportunities. In California, we have a system of Regional Centers Regional Centers - CA Department of Developmental Services that support in-home and recreational options.

Parents, there are organizations now that help support employment Evolibri - EvoLibri Consulting development. Connect with them early and add to your skill development as a Life Skills Developer.


Finally, as a life-long developer of independence, ensure you care for yourself. Excellent problem-solving requires the solver to be in the best state of wellness. Do not forget to engage in adequate nutrition for yourself. Implement an exercise plan for yourself. Get enough sleep or take naps. Take days off from the developer role. Make sure you have dates with friends and spouses. Permit yourself to make mistakes.

Karen Kaplan, MS, is a native San Franciscan. She completed her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona, in Speech Pathology and Audiology. She minored in Special Education and obtained her Speech Therapist and Special Education credentials in California. Karen worked as a speech therapist for both public schools and private schools for 20 years before opening her own residential and education program for students with autism spectrum disorders. She worked in credential programs at Sacramento State University as well as UC Davis and spent 20 additional years directing private schools for those with autism and similar learning challenges. Karan founded a small non-profit, Offerings, which travels globally helping other cultures understand those with developmental challenges. For seven years, she founded and facilitated an autism lecture series and resource fair in Northern California. Karen still facilitates an Autism Awesomeness event yearly, showcasing the strengths and talents of those who live on the spectrum. She is currently consulting, helping families, schools, and centers for children, teens, and adults. She has published articles to help bring ideas and strategies to families and professionals, providing hope. Karen authored Reach Me Teach Me in the early 70s and went on to publish her second book, On the Yellow Brick Road Finding Hope for Autism, in 2017. Her third book, Typing to Heaven and Back, is not about autism but about having important conversations with those we love. Be sure to connect with Karen—she is always ready to listen and think of the possibilities.

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