Inside: Does your autistic teen or young adult struggle with starting a skill? Learn strategies and resources to help with task initiation.
Your autistic teen or young adult has to get ready in the morning to get out the door by a certain time and it is always chaotic. You feel like you are always having to tell them what to do to get out the door.
You have asked your autistic teen to take a shower 10 times today and they still haven't started…
You start to think to yourself, are they lazy?
Are they not motivated to do these activities?
I want to help you change your thoughts on how you view your autistic teen or young adult doing activities of daily living or every day life skills.
I want to help you get to the root of the problem of why they may be having difficulty with everyday life skills and how you can support them. This starts with learning about executive function skills. This post will specifically look at task initiation.
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What is task initiation?
Task initiation is the ability to start a new task. This can include being able to start a task they don't want to do. This could be anything from getting ready for the day, to completing homework, to doing a chore. Difficulty with starting a task can make productivity a challenge.
Executive functions are a broad group of cognitive skills that can impact how you function with everyday tasks. These cognitive skills include: impulse control, emotional control, flexible thinking, working memory, self-monitoring, planing and prioritizing, task initiation, and organization. Today will will focus on the cognitive skill of task initiation.
Task Initiation and Autism
Task initiation is one of the core 8 executive functioning skills. What does this mean for autism and executive function skills? When researching executive function skills and autism, I came across this really interesting research by Dr. Gordon and I learned about it from his conversation with Learn Play Thrive on their podcast. You can check out the episode and transcript here. What I learned from this episode was that executive function appears differently neurologically for autistic people. They are using cognitive control networks differently.
Autistic inertia was first introduced to me in this blog post by Speaking of Autism.
They go on to first explain inertia in physics, which is the tendency that objects have to either continue moving (if they are already moving) or continue staying still. An object in motion stays in motion an object at rest stays at rest, unless acted upon by an outside force.
So if that is inertia, what is autistic inertia? It is the tendency that autistic people have to want to remain in a constant state. When they are asleep, they want to stay asleep. Whey they are awake they want to stay awake. When they are working on one thing, they want to stay working on that one thing. They go on to say that this can exist in everybody, but it is more pronounced in autistic people.
As I furthered researched autistic inertia I came across this recent research study conducted by an autistic researcher. You can check out the research study: “No Way Out Except from External Intervention”: First-Hand Accounts of Autistic Inertia Here.
“Participants described difficulty starting, stopping and changing activities that was not within their conscious control. While difficulty with planning was common, a subset of participants described a profound impairment in initiating even simple actions more suggestive of a movement disorder. Prompting and compatible activity in the environment promoted action, while mental health difficulties and stress exacerbated difficulties. Inertia had pervasive effects on participants’ day-to-day activities and wellbeing.” (Buckle et al., 2021)
The research further details how this relates to task initiation. “Initiation impairments were often related to the height of the cognitive threshold to overcome, so it was more difficult to get out of bed than to pick up a phone, and complicated activities such as leaving the house were especially difficult. Having another person provide all necessary information or start off the task lowered the initiation threshold, thereby facilitating action.” (Buckle et al., 2021)
Examples of task initiation with life skills
When looking at task initiation, you will want to look at how they start doing a skill. You can take a look at what types of prompts they need to get started or if they are able to start a skill on their own. Here are some examples of starting different life skills during the day.
- When the alarm goes off for the day they are able to start to get ready by going to the bathroom and changing their clothes.
- Cleaning their room when it is dirty and knowing where to start with cleaning their room.
- They are able to make a simple meal or get food when they are feeling hungry.
- They are able to look at the weather outside and start by picking out clothing to wear for their day.
- They notice their hands are dirty and are able to start the task of washing their hands.
- They look at a checklist of work tasks and they are able to start with the first task.
- They are able to start their homework assignment after directions are given.
Indicators of difficulty with task initiation/or possible signs of challenges
Individuals who struggle with task initiation may need many reminders from adults to start a task and they may delay doing an activity or rush to do it at the last minute.
What this could look like with life skills:
- You asked your teen to take a shower, but they are refusing to take a shower (this could be because of task initiation, but it could also be because of sensory processing challenges) If you are needing help with teaching taking a shower you can check out this resource here.
- They may have difficulty starting on cleaning up a mess or cleaning their room.
- They may have difficulty getting ready for the day and picking out clothing items.
- They may not know what activity to do first when getting ready in the morning and trying to leave the house.
I want to take a moment to acknowledge that some adults working with autistic teens and young adults may view these difficulties as being lazy or not motivated to do the skill.
The most important thing to remember is that executive functioning struggles absolutely do not represent laziness. Difficulty with starting a task is a real cognitive block and really does impact their ability to complete a skill.
How do I evaluate task initiation skills?
Here are some ways that you can evaluate an individuals task initiation skills.
- Complete an observation of various life skills. Ask them to complete some simple life skills or skills you know they are having difficulty with and pay attention to how much prompting or help you need to give them. Are they able to get started on their own or what strategies do you need to help them with to get started?
- Here are a couple questions to ask yourself when you are working with them:
- Do they struggle with procrastination?
- Are they able to start a task right away or do they need help?
- Do they need visuals or reminders to help them get started?
If you are noticing that they are struggling in these areas you can reach out to their support networks. This could include their teachers, occupational therapist, speech therapist, psychologist, and or doctor. You could also reach out to them to ask for a professional evaluation.
Strategies to help with task initiation
There are a variety of strategies you can use to help with task initiation. You may have to try out different ones for the person and skill you are working on.
When looking at strategies to help with task initiation I wanted to go back to the research study by Buckle, et al. They found that, “prompting from another person in their presence was the most helpful intervention. Even having someone working nearby without interacting was often helpful. Participants also found it easier to do anything where another person was depending or counting on them, even from a distance, and most difficult to do something only for themselves.” (Buckle et al., 2021)
Prompting is giving a prompt in some form as a way of helping someone move onto another task. This could be anything from:
- a person verbally telling you what to do
- someone handing you something to get you started
- writing the step out for you or looking at a checklist with the steps written out
- or you hearing an alarm go off to get you started.
It can be helpful to have a specific support person be designated to help the individual get started on something new to help them feel grounded and safe that it is okay to get started on something new.
Break Skills Down Into Small Steps or Task analysis
“Several participants had developed personal techniques to reduce the pressure of expectation. For example, by telling themselves “all you have to do is…” one tiny step, they could circumvent the sense of pressure and demands that could cause them to get stuck.” (Buckle et al., 2021).
Break a skill down into small manageable steps for them to see what to do and what is expected of them. If they can clearly see what the first step is going to be this can make it easier to get started.
A formal term for this can be task analysis. This is when you break a task down into smaller steps.
If you are wanting more help with breaking a skill down into smaller steps I have some solutions for you. First if you are having difficulty with teaching personal hygiene skills I have created an ebook bundle just for you. I break the skills down for you with written checklists and more. You can check out the Teaching Personal Hygiene Cares with Task Analysis: A Step by Step Guide Here!
I also listened to an interview with Oswin and Meg from Learn Play Thrive, where Oswin who is an autistic adult spoke about some strategies that worked for him and the autistic clients he works with. You can listen to the podcast episode or read the transcript here.
He said that he uses visuals for a variety things during his day. He uses them at his work at his computer, in his home for doing chores, and in his kitchen for meal planning.
Types of Visuals
- Written word of the step or task
- black and white picture of the step
- colored picture of the step
- real life picture of the step
- PEC pictures of the step
- the actual object that you need to use to complete the step
Another strategy that Oswin stated was giving a person wait times. Meaning giving them enough time so that their mind can go ahead and start shifting and with enough wait time those planning steps can start to happen.
Timers or Visual Timers
Oswin also said that he uses timers to help him when he can't have an external person there to help him initiate or prompt him on a task. You can use a visual timer like this one here or a timer on your phone.
A visual timer displays how much time is left on it so it can be very helpful with someone who may need a visual as to when the task will be done. This allows them to better see a start and a stop time. Someone may have difficulty starting a task because they don't understand when they could be done. We all want to be able to see an end result when we are working on something. So using a visual timer can be a way to give a concrete end to something.
Help them see the end of the task
Sometimes they may not want to get started because they don't understand when they will be done or they can't visualize the end of the task. If you can help them see when the task is done this could also help them get started on the task. You can do this by using a visual timer, writing the steps out or using visuals of the steps, or showing them the end result with a model.
Written checklists can be a great strategy to break the skill down into smaller steps, but also to write out the different tasks they need to get done as part of a routine. For example for a morning routine you could write down the big tasks that need to get done such as: go to the bathroom, wash face, brush teeth, get dressed, eat breakfast as an example.
I have included a free checklist PDF that you can print off and write down the tasks or the steps for a task that make sense for your situation. You can get these free blank checklist forms by joining the email list and becoming a member of the Learning for a Purpose community. Just enter your best email address below!
Resources and further reading
If you are wanting to learn more about task initiation and look at further research and strategies for autistic teens and young adults you can check out these resources.
- You can check out the research study No Way Out Except from External Intervention: First Hand Accounts of Autistic Inertia
- You can check out the interview with Oswin from Divergent Minds and Meg from Learn Play Thrive Here
- You can look at this blog post by Speaking of Autism about Task Initiation and Autistic Inertia
- You can check out this interview with Dr. Gordon and Meg from Learn Play Thrive Here
- You could check out this research article Impairments in Real World Executive Function Increase from Childhood to Adolescence in Autism Spectrum Disorders
Books to check out
- Flipp the Switch 2.0: Mastering Executive Function Skills from School to Adult life for Students with Autism
- Unstuck and on Target! (An Executive Function Curriculum to Improve Flexibility, Planning, and Organization Second Edition
- Helping Students Take Control of Everyday Executive Functions: The Attention Fix
Buckle KL, Leadbitter K, Poliakoff E and Gowen E (2021) “No Way Out Except From External Intervention”: First-Hand Accounts of Autistic Inertia. Front. Psychol. 12:631596. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.631596