The guideline with the most generality for determining a meaningful center-based activity is that for a task to be meaningful, the task would have to be something that would be done for the person by someone else if the person could not do it him/herself outside of the center. The guideline pertains most directly to instructional tasks in center-based programs with an intent to ensure that what is being instructed is something an adult with autism needs to do on a regular basis—a functional life activity. It generally represents the longest standing guideline for determining meaningful instructional tasks for adolescents and adults with developmental disabilities (cf. Brown et al., 1979, 1981).

Determining if a center-based task is something that would have to be done for an adult with autism if he/she could not do it independently outside of the center is often straightforward. For example: if a person could not dress him/herself, someone would have to dress the individual; if a person could not buy groceries for his/her meals, someone would have to buy the groceries, etc. Instructional tasks that teach these types of skills are therefore quite meaningful.

In other cases, however, actually ensuring that the guideline is met can require careful scrutiny of the task that an individual is instructed to perform. The scrutiny should focus both on what the individual needs to know how to do and the materials with which to do it. An example of this type of task and how the guideline can be applied is represented in the following case illustration.

Case Illustration

Making Sure an Instructional Task Teaches a Skill That an Individual Would Have To Do For Him/Herself or Have Done by Someone Else

Mr. Henne is a 43-year-old gentleman with autism and a severe intellectual disability. He attended an adult education program in a classroom with 12 other adults with disabilities. One of his instructional tasks involved teaching him to screw nuts onto different size bolts that were scattered on a table, and subsequently to unscrew the nuts from the bolts. The rationale for this teaching task was to enhance Mr. Henne’s fine motor skills.

A practitioner consulting with the adult education program was asked by the program’s administration to review the daily activities and help provide more meaningful tasks where appropriate. Upon reviewing Mr. Henne’s fine motor goal with the center staff, it was agreed that no one would need to screw and unscrew nuts onto bolts scattered on a table for him outside of the classroom situation, nor would he likely need to do this on his own. It was also agreed though that his fine motor skills warranted improvement. The group then determined how Mr. Henne’s fine motor skills could be enhanced by learning to do tasks that he would perform in his group home that his residential staff currently did for him.

For example, Mr. Henne liked to wear a necktie with dress shirts but staff had to tie the necktie for him. Hence, it was decided to teach him how to tie several of his favorite neckties within his center-based instruction. Learning to tie a necktie requires acquisition of a number of fine motor skills, and usually repeated practice to master the skills. In contrast to screwing and unscrewing nuts on bolts, however, Mr. Henne would use the skill of tying a necktie outside of the classroom situation or staff would have to do it for him.

Similarly, the group decided that another task requiring fine motor skills that Mr. Henne could apply in his group home that staff currently performed for him was using various keys to unlock doors and other items with locking devices. Teaching him to unlock doors and a cabinet that contained his personnel possessions at the center also subsequently replaced screwing and unscrewing loose nuts and bolts to provide a more meaningful fine motor task for him (i.e., one that he would likely do outside of the classroom).

Sometimes an instructional task is mistakenly viewed as meaningful because it can enhance a person’s general skill set even if the specific activity involved is not something that would have to be done outside of the teaching situation. This was reflected in the case illustration with the task of screwing and unscrewing nuts and bolts to enhance the general skill area of fine motor manipulations. Acquiring fine motor skills certainly can be meaningful and particularly for adults with autism who have difficulties in this skill area. However, using the guideline, the task would not be considered meaningful. The rationale for this determination, again using the guideline, is several-fold. First, the task of screwing and unscrewing nuts on bolts is not something that a caregiver would have to perform for an adult with autism if the individual could not do it for him/herself in the person’s typical living situation. So even if the instructional task was mastered, it would have little if any functional utility for the adult outside of the classroom. It would be more beneficial to teach the individual fine motor skills using tasks that the person would need to perform on a regular basis.

A second issue pertains to skill generalization. Again with the case illustration, it may be considered that the fine motor skills acquired while learning to screw and unscrew nuts can be carried over to other fine motor skills that a person would need to do outside of the center. However, it is well established that people with severe disabilities often have difficulties generalizing a skill acquired in one situation with certain materials to other situations with other materials. Hence, with Mr. Henne in the case illustration, it would be questionable whether he could generalize the skill of putting nuts on bolts to fine motor tasks that he needed to do outside of the classroom such as tying his necktie or unlocking doors at his home. Again, it is generally more meaningful to teach skills such as fine motor manipulations within situations that are the same or very similar to the situations in which the exact skills are needed.

A good way to consider how to apply the guideline of a functional task representing something that someone would have to do for an adult with autism if the person could not do it him/herself is to review the daily routines of individuals. Usually, if one observes an adult with autism on the severe end of the spectrum across the day, a number of tasks will be observed being completed by support staff for the individual. Each of those tasks involves skills that could be taught to the individual in order for the person to learn to perform the tasks him/herself and thereby function more independently on a daily basis. Tasks presented in center-based programs to teach the individual to complete the activities independently would therefore be much more beneficial relative to tasks involving activities that the person would never perform outside of the center.

There are many types of tasks in which adults with autism are often engaged in center-based programs that fail to meet this meaningful guideline. However, by closely examining both the activity and materials associated with the tasks, they can usually be altered to become more meaningful. Additional examples of how this general guideline can be applied are illustrated in conjunction with the following discussion concerning the other guidelines for meaningful tasks in center-based programs.

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