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Social Thinking Articles

10 Levels to Living Independently

Michelle Garcia Winner and Dr. Pamela Crooke

Levels to Living Independently

Download a graphic with the 10 levels to use with students


For many of our clients, living independently doesn’t just happen. It takes planning, practice, and patience. Our definition of living independently means daily functioning without adults or peer mentors providing ongoing structure or cues. It involves flexibly reacting and responding to daily demands.


Over the years, our work has led us to interact and consult with many young adults who are academically smart, but struggle to succeed as independent adults—whether in a university or work setting. Many have diagnoses such as Asperger’s syndrome, High-Functioning Autism, ADHD, Twice Exceptional (academically gifted with known learning disabilities), and a number are without a diagnosis. Almost all have challenges with Executive Functioning (EF) and have had a great deal of assistance to accomplish the work required to finish high school. Many of these young adults are also very talented in a defined area (e.g., violinist, scientist, inventor, etc.), and many may have received large scholarships to attend the university of their choice based on their talents. While most make it through the first semester of higher education, a large percentage are unable to continue after that. Why? Our years of clinical experience have shown that intellect and academic abilities are not the problem. Rather, weak EF skills—the ability to sustain organization, focus, grit, and daily living practices—is the culprit.


Grades are only part of the equation

During the K-12 school years, most students are encouraged to focus on academic success as the most important indicator of accomplishment. And while many of our clients are described as smart and college bound, we rarely recognize and address their limited independence. Caregivers have pushed and prodded these individuals to wake up, get out of bed, go to sleep at a reasonable hour, eat and take medications on a regular schedule, manage homework time, study for tests, and turn in their papers right up to high school graduation.* This leaves the student with absolutely no practice in any of these skills as well as a false sense (including for caregivers) that they are living an independent life. Then, as they move away to college, they are expected to spontaneously and efficiently function independently. Consider for a moment that the academic day during K-12 years is highly structured (i.e., start, stop, transition times are built in), but college life means some days will have no classes and others will be packed. This can be the wild west for many of our organizationally challenged students.


*Note: We understand that many neurotypically developing individuals also receive a great deal of reminders and support during high school. But this group is eventually able to transition into college life with only a few bumps along the way. This article is for those with social learning or EF challenges who take longer, or possibly don’t acquire skills without specialized assistance to manage themselves across a wide array of daily demands.


Going solo takes practice

Because we’ve seen the challenges faced by young adults who are suddenly thrust into college life, where the expectation is independence and they have had no experience or practice, we have developed a strategy-based framework called the 10 Levels to Independence. This framework begins with the most critical areas to work on (sleep, medication, food) and culminates with academic learning and leisure. Each level forms the foundation for subsequent levels—and every level is critical for independence. It is never too early or too late to target these critical areas sometimes referred to as “soft skills.”

Tip: Individuals can find a range of apps to help them with most of these levels—screens are for more than social media, gaming, and surfing! Learning to use the tools available through our devices can be an essential aspect of independent living.


10 Levels to Independence


1. Establish (mostly consistent) sleep and wake patterns

  • Waking in the morning to get to classes or other appointments, for most of us, is a learned skill and requires practice. When mastered, we learn self-responsibility and awareness to meeting the requirements of the day. While parents and caregivers may think “it’s no big deal” or “it’s just easier” to drag their child’s reluctant body out of bed every day, this is likely to backfire in the future. Keep in mind there is no one to do this once they leave home. For those who still live at home, it is a perfect opportunity to practice this forever life skill. We are always amazed to learn that many young adults who so heavily use their cell phones didn’t realize they had an alarm function. Never assume a student is aware of how to use their technology for functional use.

  • Getting to bed is the bigger challenge: faced with the freedoms of living away from caregiver guidance, young adults often believe they can handle a sleep-free existence. We realize that many teens and young adults (typically developing as well as those with EF challenges) deal with the challenge of going to bed at a reasonable time. Once emancipated, most typically developing students figure out within a couple of months how much sleep they need to manage the next day’s demands. However, students with social learning challenges are not as aware of time management and how one day’s work and leisure time impacts the next day’s functioning. While it is expected that all teens/young adults will have bumps and bruises with learning to manage their sleep schedule, many of our folks with social learning challenges find they feel lonely during the daylight hours with all the demands of face-to-face interaction and that their social life begins at midnight with passion engagement through the internet. There is no quick solution to this problem; rather, the longer-term solution begins with teaching awareness of time management, the concepts and skills for face-to-face communication, and the importance of sleep schedules. Helping teens transition well means providing them with a level of independence prior to them leaving home so that they have started to figure out these responsibilities before they are set free!

2. Take needed medications on schedule and without resistance

  • Taking prescribed medications on a suggested schedule seems like a simple task, but if the individual only remembers when told, then the routine will not continue when he or she is away from the prompt. Over the years, we have met individuals who stay awake for 24 hours in a row and then sleep nearly as long. This unpredictable sleep-wake schedule wreaks havoc on medication management as it throws brain chemistry off balance. Begin medication responsibility no later than high school and allow for at least four years of practice and for these routines to develop.

  • If the individual, now an adult, no longer feels he needs medication, then he should talk directly to the doctor to discuss alternatives and related possible ramifications. We find that parents hold on to medication management too long and then, if the student abruptly stops, the result is negative with possibly dangerous side effects. Keep in mind that once a child turns 18 and legally becomes an adult, his or her medical doctors are not allowed to talk to the caregiver without the young adult’s permission. Hence, helping students learn to manage themselves with caregiver input is most successful prior to adulthood.

3. Establish and maintain reasonable nutritional intake

  • One suggestion to support this step is to talk to your teens about the scientifically proven food-brain connection. While it is common for newly emancipated students to gravitate to junk food, they eventually find a need for some sort of reasonable nutritional intake. Yet, we have worked with individuals who were so anxious about eating around others in the school cafeteria that they were essentially living out of junk food machines on campus long-term. So, learning about face-to-face communication and how to initiate social interactions with people in a cafeteria or other campus eatery helps to promote improved nutrition.

4. Exercise and stay active

  • With the significant increase in screen-based addiction, a larger proportion of young adults are failing to take care of their bodies. The reality is that many of our clients do not enjoy, nor crave, exercise (just like the rest of us). However, with wearable technology or step tracking on most cell phones, the idea of walking as an exercise is no longer taboo. We’ve known several clients who have found step tracking to literally be a “healthy restricted interest.”

5. Monitor hygiene

  • Here is the reality: people notice how we look and smell. If we appear or smell dirty, the impact on face-to-face interactions and social events includes, but is not limited to, interacting with roommates, meeting new people, being included in peer-based group work, etc. Some of our clients may not notice that their hair looks dirty or possibly smells and assume that others don’t notice. Others likely do notice, but often don’t tell the person directly. People also tend to gossip about hygiene issues with others. Being honest with our students about this creepy social fact—that it’s okay to complain to others about one’s hygiene, but not appropriate to directly report hygiene concerns to the violator—has been helpful advice for most of our students. They report to us that they really appreciate people being (compassionately) honest with them as they struggle to read social cues or fluidly take the perspective of others. It is also helpful for them to build time into their schedule for hygiene once they are emancipated.

6. Establish face-to-face relationships (balance of online and face-to-face social relationships)

  • Given the many points noted above, the challenges of face-to-face relationships can impact many different and seemingly disconnected aspects of functioning independently. Enhanced face-to-face interactions can be one of the best ways to ward off mental health challenges. Knowing how to establish and maintain different types of social relationships—such as asking for help in an academic class or about the school schedule, establishing acquaintance-based relationships, and managing a friendship—are all part of the adult living experience. A mix of face-to-face, online, and social media connections can be a protective factor against budding mental health challenges. The research is showing that individuals who spend a lot of time on screens to satisfy their need for social relationships are less satisfied with those relationships when compared to face-to-face relationships. Typically developing students are experiencing some of the same struggles with getting face-to-face practice as our students with social learning challenges.

  • Many of our clients say, “I already know how to do all this social stuff. I’ll wait until college to try it out.” The reality is that it’s tough to jump in and be friendly, take a risk, and approach strangers without practice. Talk to your students about building their social intelligence muscle in the same way that we talk about building science knowledge and physical strength. As teachers and peers, know that an inclusive gesture or hand assuredly placed on another’s shoulder to provide support can be a strong anecdote to sadness and depression. In summary, all relationships (online and face-to-face) are good—but it’s best to have a balance.

7. PLAN to get organized

  • In the Social Thinking Methodology, we teach the difference between a goal and an action plan. A goal is something we think about and an action plan is something we do. The key ingredient is to regulate our emotions and behaviors to carry out the action plans to achieve our goals. An essential step in getting organized is taking the time to create a set of action plans to meet a specific goal. Knowing what needs to be done and when it should be done is a critical step prior to actually doing the work. Problems arise when students create plans and then don’t do anything to carry out the plans. While organized thinking is an essential part of the organizational process, it may lead our highly verbal individuals to “talk the talk” rather than “walk the walk”; for this reason, we separated level 7 from level 8 in this framework.

8. DO what you planned:

  • This is called “walking the walk” and it begins after organizing one’s thinking (level 7). To carry out our plans requires motivation, grit, and managing our behaviors and emotions when we are less than thrilled with the task. A significant part of becoming self-reliant and independent is having strategies to follow through with doing things when the task makes us uncomfortable (e.g., long-term project, difficult math, meeting someone new, computer programming, etc.). Harnessing motivation and accomplishing action plans are essential to being a college student.

  • How can we teach students to create their own motivation to tackle less exciting school work? Through the Social Thinking Methodology, we teach students to be aware of how to learn to be comfortable with discomfort. As part of this we also teach awareness about falling into the pit of their own “nowness of now.” The nowness of now rut occurs when students seek relief right now from anything that makes them feel uncomfortable when they should be doing an assignment, going to a class, meeting people to work on a project, etc. The reader will also find helpful strategies about tackling the “doing” aspects of projects by looking to the work of Sarah Ward and Kristen Jacobsen (www.efpractice.com). Also, www.CHADD.org provides a wealth of information about how to manage EF challenges for those with ADHD. Most people with high level ASD will also benefit from the information provided on this website and through their quarterly magazine, Attention.

9. Learn new information taught in college

  • Notice that this is level 9 and not the first step! However, most of our students think school and, ultimately, going away to college simply means academic learning. The ability to learn new information in higher education means that you’ve figured out the first eight levels. If you aren’t sleeping, eating well, and generally taking care of yourself, then learning is negatively affected. If you are completely dependent on a parent/caregiver to set your goals and coach you through the action, then your chances of independence diminish greatly. Parents and professionals should work with younger students to see each of these levels to independence as equally important in one’s evolution.

10. Connecting leisure time to budgeting

  • While a typical childhood is structured to include many hours of leisure time, adulthood requires finding a balance in this independence trifecta: 1) establish a work or career path, 2) seek and maintain relationships, and 3) pursue leisure activities simply for leisure. The tricky part is balance. If one’s leisure activities, for example, gaming, overtake work or homework/studying, then one may not be considered capable of living independently.

  • Without a job, and even sometimes with one, money management challenges can grind the independence wheel to a halt. Parents/caregivers and schools should begin teaching how to make a simple budget and stick to it starting in middle school (even if the adults struggle with budgeting themselves). There are numerous apps, bank resources, and simple courses that have now made the process more streamlined. Unfortunately, most high schools in the U.S. have phased out practical math and related life skills of managing checking accounts, etc. in lieu of spending more time on educational standards–based information. Many of our students end up with big scholarships, poor money management, limited spending oversight, and eventually unplanned debt.

  • On the other hand, if work (or leisure) outweighs time spent seeking relationships, then the outcome may be loneliness, depression, and anxiety. In fact, our definition of success in high school is to graduate with one’s mental health intact. We can all support this by avoiding a singular focus on getting good grades over managing one’s anxiety and depression. Having solid to strong mental health allows for more flexible thinking and problem solving. Keep in mind that treating one’s mental health may also include teaching social learning and related social skills along with in EF skills for managing oneself and one’s resources (organizational skills, self-regulation of emotion, etc.).

So, why not talk about independence as an exploration of these 10 levels? Begin working on “beating each level” (to use a gaming phrase) starting in upper elementary and middle school. Give our students the chance to practice and practice, and struggle and practice some more in order to ultimately “defeat the big boss” (another gaming term) of living independently.


Guide students toward accepting that doing the preliminary work outlined in these 10 levels will help prepare them to succeed in the transition to adulthood on whichever route—university or work life—is traveled.

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