Using Activity Schedules for Children with Autism to Increase Independence

Today, we are talking about using activity schedules for children with autism in order to teach them how to follow a schedule, become more independent, and follow routines things like dressing, independent play time, or an evening routine. These activity schedules can even be used for older kids to learn how to do things like washing clothes. I explain how we have used these activity schedules for Lucas every single day for over two decades.

I’ve been asked a number of times how to get our kids to do independent work, to do chores, to do their routines without adult prompting or while fading prompts. I remember way back when I was a new behavior analyst in 2003, I went into a classroom for the first time and I was getting to know the teacher and the students.

I looked over and saw this child who was 9 or 10 years of age. He had his fingers in his mouth and it almost looked like he was choking himself. 

So, I said, “what is that student doing?” 

The teacher said, “he’s doing independent work.” 

That was not what was happening. The child was not engaging in anything appropriate. I then worked with the teacher and the child to use an activity schedule to build his independent work skills. 

There is a lot of need for kids to keep themselves busy and to participate in activities of daily living. I really do want to show parents and professionals how to help their kids be more independent with autism independent work tasks. In my books and online courses and this blog, I talk a lot about avoiding the word “work” so I would exchange that word and call this independent activity time, chores, and other terms like that. 

How to Use Activity Schedules for Children with Autism

There is a great book from 1999 called Activity Schedules for Children with Autism: Teaching Independent Behavior. As a behavior analyst I was able to take this book and put it into action almost immediately. And I still use activity schedules for my son, Lucas, to this day. 

Lucas’s activity schedules are small photo albums with pictures of each step of a routine with text describing each action. For instance, with his morning routine book he goes downstairs, gets his medication out, then takes the medication with applesauce. He has pictures and prompts for going downstairs, getting the medication out of the container, and then taking it with applesauce. 

As a side note, I have a video blog on taking medications, and it would be ideal for Lucas to take his medications with water. But he learned with applesauce and we’re okay with him continuing to take it this way. 

His morning routine continues with him getting turkey bacon out, putting 5 pieces on a plate, then in the microwave for two minutes. Then he eats, cleans up, and puts his dishes in the dishwasher, cleans the countertop and sweeps the floor. Again, there are pictures and prompts for each step.

Child learning how to wash hands to eventually lead to this task being part of an independent morning routine.
Child learning how to wash hands to eventually lead to this task being part of an independent morning routine.

Types of Activity Schedules

When using activity schedules for independent play or leisure time activities, it’s important to start out with just a few activities that the child enjoys, completes quickly and independently. This time can be expanded to 30 to 60 minute sessions where the child could choose between puzzles, do the puzzle, and then clean up before moving onto the next page for a matching game or a vocational task. 

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Lucas Barbera holding up his morning routine activity schedule book to show two steps after eating breakfast which include wiping the counter and sweeping the floor.
Lucas Barbera holding up his morning routine activity schedule book to show two steps after eating breakfast which include wiping the counter and sweeping the floor.

If a child can read and they have an iPhone, you can use the reminders app to put in textual prompts and alarms. You could actually set timers to prompt the child to move onto the next skill or activity. In this kind of situation, you might have to teach the child how to set a timer, too. This is all covered in Activity Schedules for Children with Autism.

We all use reminders and to-do lists. But for kids with autism or signs of autism, having little activity books can really increase independence and help with reducing prompt dependency. I remember when my younger son, Spencer, was in high school, he and his friend were messing around with something and they got their shirts stained. He came running up and he said, “where’s Lucas’s how to do the wash book?” As you can see, activity books can be helpful for kids of any age and those with and without autism or delays. 

In summary, activity schedules can even be great for anyone who needs more step-by-step guidance to learn or follow a routine. This step-by-step guidance helps us reduce the adult prompts and makes kids a lot more independent. 

I hope you enjoyed those tips on how to increase independent skills, chores, and routines. I know it’s helped my son a ton, and I hope it’ll help your child and clients too. 

For more information about joining our online course and community where we cover how to help kids be independent with self care activities like handwashing, dressing, and showering, I would love it if you would attend a free workshop at marybarbera.com/workshops. And you can learn all about how to put a whole program in place for your child or clients anywhere you live around the world.

A boy with autism using an independent activity schedule book to choose and complete independent play activities.

Frequently Asked Questions:

What is an activity schedule?

An activity schedule is a series of pictures or written words that show step by step how to do an activity, such as completing a bedtime routine, working on independent leisure time tasks, or making, eating and cleaning up breakfast. Activity schedules can be created in a variety of ways such as picture books or reminders in an app. You can learn more about creating activity schedules for your child or client through this great (and very old) book Activity Schedules for Children with Autism: Teaching Independent Behavior.

What can I use an activity schedule for?

Activity schedules can be used for any activity that a child or adult needs step by step prompts for. With Lucas, we have activity schedules for doing his morning routine, his bedtime routine, and exercising, and more. You can also use activity books to help you with one hour table times sessions.

For more information about building independent skills and other tips for working with children with autism, take a free workshop at marybarbera.com/workshop.

Learn about more tips like activity schedules to turn things around for your child or clients with autism (or signs of autism) today!
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