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Karen Wang
BY Karen Wang

How To Teach Chores To Your Special Needs Child

How to give chores to children with special needsI was chatting with another parent at the Friendship Circle recently, and I mentioned that my 10 year old son, who has autism and severe learning disabilities, does the dishes at our house.

“What?  He does chores?”

Yes, in fact, Louie also does the laundry without being asked.  And he vacuums his room.  And he puts away his own clothes, books and toys.  And he shovels snow.  He does everything with a big smile.

“How did you teach him to do all of that?”

Well, it took a really long time for him to learn.  We had to find the right motivation, and we had to break everything down into simple steps.  But somehow it clicked.  This is how the learning process unfolded for us.

Step #1: Start with Self Care

My husband and I started to make long-term plans for our son while he was still in preschool.  We realized that he was going to need extra help learning basic life skills.

We introduced self-care: brushing his own teeth, running a bath at the right temperature, washing his body.  We always made it a point to comment positively on his independence in this area, but we did not give him any other reward.

Step #2:  Experiment with Sticker Charts

We tried sticker charts for doing tasks around the house.  The list of chores would have one or two self-care tasks, a household task that he had already mastered and a household task that he had not yet mastered.

Our son had absolutely no interest in these sticker charts for several years.  But we noticed that he liked to vacuum and switch electric items on and off.  We decided to let him vacuum as much as he wanted, and we even got him a Shark motorized sweeper, because it is lighter and quieter than a regular vacuum.

Step #3: Incorporate Privileges

Eventually, Louie started asking for extra privileges.  His most prized privilege was a weekend morning out with either me or my husband.

Those sticker charts suddenly became attractive.  His first successful job chart only had 2 jobs on it: read 20 minutes per day with Mom and unload the clean dishes from the dishwasher with Dad.  This involved re-organizing the kitchen so that all dishes were accessible to him.  We had to talk him through the unloading process and show him the correct place for every single item.

Step #4: Add one task at a time

Vacuuming - teaching chores to children with special needsWe added a new job to his chart as soon as he mastered the previous task.  We talked openly about how everyone in the family was benefiting from Louie’s assistance.

Every shelf in Louie’s closet was labeled, and every evening I gave him 10 items of his clothing to identify and place on the correct shelf.  The single most challenging task for Louie was to pick up 10 toys or books off the floor and to put each item back in the correct place.  This required categorizing items out of context.

Step #5:  Work on new tasks together

Our weekend outings taught Louie the value of shared activities.  He noticed that my husband and I were finishing up the dishes after he unloaded the dishwasher, and he noticed the time spent doing laundry.

Louie decided that he wanted to be more involved, because it meant that he could spend more time with his parents.  This was a major turning point for him.  He started loading the dirty clothes in the washing machine, and I taught him how to measure the detergent and switch on the machine.  He loved setting and turning on the machine.

Step #6: Practice makes perfect!

Scaffolding is the art of putting supports in place so that a person can learn a new skill.  Louie needed plenty of scaffolding to learn how to load dirty dishes into the dishwasher.

He had to learn how to rinse, sort and arrange everything.  He spilled an awful amount of dirty dishwater on the kitchen floor and counters.  We often had to run the dishwasher twice to get everything clean.  But we responded positively and showed him the correct way to load.  Even the lightest, most gentle criticism was upsetting to him.

Step #7:  Remove the Scaffolding

We slowly removed the scaffolding from the daily chores and invited Louie to join us in whatever we were doing.

He doesn’t have a job chart anymore.  Louie loves to help me prepare meals: he prefers to set the oven for me, because pressing electronic buttons is such a delight.  He learned how to sort our dirty laundry into whites, colors and delicates.

Last weekend he wanted to watch his dad change the oil in the car.  We keep adding new tasks to his repertoire, and we make sure that the experience is social and lighthearted.  Louie has a long way to go in his developmental skills, but every day I kiss him and say, “Thank you for helping me today.”

Karen Wang

Written on March 7, 2012 by:

Karen Wang is a Friendship Circle parent. You may have seen her sneaking into the volunteer lounge for ice cream or being pushed into the cheese pit by laughing children. She is a contributing author to the anthology "My Baby Rides the Short Bus: The Unabashedly Human Experience of Raising Kids With Disabilities"
  • Karen this article is such a blessing.  As my young children are getting older and can manage chores around the house I have struggled with finding a way to implement it without a battle.  I became more frustrated with the process of putting them through all the steps over and over again.  Your idea of implementing a scaffolding approach is intriguing and your experience proved it to be effective!  I do have my children help clean their rooms and pick up their toys around the house.  I have been toying with adding other chores to teach life skills.  Your perspective of chores teaching life skills has changed my viewpoint.  I have three children, twins (both with special needs) and one who is older by two years.  There is always competition in the house of who can do things “right” or from the child’s viewpoint of what is “his/her way.”  Your article highlighted the fact that tolerating the learning process, keeping it light and social and also involving your husband really hit home for me.  There is so much to teach our children but I think tolerance and trying your best to get it done is key to the lasting success of a child doing chores and feeling like he has accomplished something.  Thank you for your insight!

  • Vera

    Karen, I love your blog posts.  Your thoughtful insight is great for me as both a teacher to students of all backgrounds and as a parent of two small children.

    Positive reinforcement is one of the top weapons in my arsenal when it comes to classroom management.  There is no other way to maintain control of 50 first graders in music class and still enjoy your job and maintain your sanity.  It also brings an atmosphere of kindness into our home that I really cherish.  One of my teaching mentors frequently says, “Positives may come and go, but negatives accumulate.” 

    Kudos to you on your parental consistency!  I look up to you in admiration.  🙂

  • Holly

    Karen, I appreciate you sharing your comments and insight on what works for your son.  Chores around the house are a continued struggle for my challenged teen.  We’ve tried several approaches including the ones you have mentioned.  What rings clearest with me in the successful ventures we’ve had is capitalizing on the motivation.  They key for us is recognizing just what that motivation is.  As you pointed out, it could be flipping a switch and building from there.  It could be recognizing the positive time well-spent with adults and adding from there.  I know in my case, it is a lot of looking at the small details of what he likes/wants/needs, catching him at that motivated moment and capitalizing on it ever so slowly.  It’s a process and we all get there at some point.  Thanks for pointing out some of the details that help your system work.

  • This article doesn’t really address chores for my disabled daughter, whose limitations are largely communication based (she’s deaf, delayed, and still only 21 months old) and mobility due to cerebral palsy. However, it’s great advice for all children, including her big sister whose biggest battle currently is that she just turned four and is quite headstrong.

    Thanks for the ideas!

  • Danielle, have you considered wearing your daughter on your back while doing chores around the house?  I used to do this with my boys – I have an Ergo carrier, which is very comfortable and easy to use.  The Ergo would keep her snug against your body, so you could even sing to her while you work, and she would feel the vibrations in your chest.  Communication and self-regulation are two of the most important life skills, but I do think that some of the ideas in this article can apply to your daughter – it’s about finding her interests and incorporating those into the daily routine.  For example, if she likes light switches, her job can be to turn off lights before you leave the house.  There’s nothing easy about teaching life skills – it takes years of observation and patience.

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  • Renewith1e

    MY daughter is 7 and has Down Syndrome. She showed an interest in helping her teenage brother with his chores a couple years ago. So we started splitting little parts of his chores with her. She washes the table and he hands her the dishes and tells her whos spot to put it in and she also puts away the socks after they have been matched up. She also picks up her toys with almost no help unless its an unusually large mess. She does all of this willingly and eagerly!! She takes great pride in doing them without being asked!! She is my personal ray of sunshine and makes me very proud everyday.

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