Julie McKinney, MS
July 6, 2022

Tips to help youth with disabilities learn independent living skills

Youth with disabilities should start to learn independent living skills as early as possible. Read on to help them transition to adulthood!

(Listen to this on our podcast instead)

Do you remember doing something new on your own for the first time? Getting a new apartment? First time on a plane? Doing a task or project by yourself at work? It can be intimidating, right? So we can understand how our young adult children may feel when high school is done and they think about making their own way in the world. This is a hard transition for anyone, and for someone with a disability or learning difference, it can be even harder.

So how can we help? There are 3 main ways: give them a heads-up, teach and practice independent living skills, and support them during and after the transition.


It always helps to know what lies ahead. What will your child’s routine look like? What tasks will they have to do by themselves? Who will they have to communicate with? After high school, your child may plan to go on to college or technical school, or maybe look for a job or find a supported or independent living situation. They may still live with you, but will want to be more independent. It can make the transition far easier if they know as much as possible about what their life will be like and what the expectations are.

Talk about this as much–and as early–as you can. Certainly all through high school, and maybe in middle school. If your child plans to go on to college or technical school, see if they can shadow a student who is there. They can also take a tour or talk with the admissions staff. They can see what the dorm looks like, try navigating around campus, and witness some classes.

Same thing with a job: have them talk to people from a likely workplace or industry. See if your child can observe people on the job, or talk to a supervisor. Take advantage of vocational training and internships that their high school offers. These programs can be part of their IEP (Individualized Education Program.)

Start early – in middle school if possible!

Teach and Practice

There are so many skills we take for granted in adult life! Having a schedule that we follow. Buying groceries and cooking. Making a doctor’s appointment. Cleaning the house (…well, some of us are still working on that one!) Teens can learn and practice most of these during their high school years, or even earlier, and they should! But you may have to be more explicit about how they do these things, and give them support at first.

Give your child household chores, and also let them take the lead on any life task that you think they can do. Have them brainstorm tasks that they think they can learn to do independently. For example:

Refilling a prescription: 

  1. Give clear instructions on how they do this and write out a list of steps.

  2. Have them practice.

  3. Then let them make the call and stand by in case they need help.

  4. Give less help as they gain confidence in doing the task on their own.

Find things they’re interested in and create ways to give them responsibilities. Do they love animals? Maybe they can get a pet and learn how to take care of it. Or they can walk the neighbor’s dog to practice a routine, responsible task.

One family we talked to recently set up part of their home as a “practice apartment” for their son. He’s responsible for shopping, cleaning and taking care of his cat. And he’s learning to cook. This is a great way to set up expectations and a plan for learning independent living skills! Of course you can also do this by just assigning chores in your house.

Click to Read Transcript

Families and Stories:

How Are You Teaching Your Son Skills for Independent Living? with Johnny & Jonathan

How Are You Teaching Your Son Skills for Independent Living? with Johnny & Jonathan

[Johnny] One of the things we did do for him, though, is he has an older brother who did move out. And so we converted that area of the house into an apartment. So he has his own living room with a sleeper sofa and a TV, and of course his own bedroom, his own bathroom. So if guys wanna spend the night, they can, but kinda gives him the sense of being on his own, but still being there at the house.

[Interviewer] Yeah.

[Johnny] My wife has taught him to cook some minor things. Lately he’s a big baker. He likes to make muffins, so almost every day there’s a new batch of muffins.

[Interviewer] That’s pretty good.

[Johnny] Yeah.

[Interviewer] So you have a live-in pastry chef.

[Johnny] We sure do, we sure do.

[Interviewer] What are your favorite kind of muffins to make?

[Jonathan] I like the chocolate ones.

[Interviewer] That’s my favorite too, actually. Yeah. Oh, that’s great. So how do you like having that space set up like an apartment? Do you feel like you’re sort of learning stuff that’s new?

[Jonathan] Yes. Yes.

[Interviewer] Yeah.

[Johnny] Tell ’em about your new friend.

[Jonathan] We have a cat now.

[Interviewer] Really? Nice. Does the cat… mostly in your area or in…

[Jonathan] Yes, mostly in my area.

[Interviewer] Okay. And so, what do you do for the cat? What kind of responsibilities do you have?

[Jonathan] I change the litter.

[Interviewer] Yeah.

[Jonathan] And feed him, give him water, give him treats.

[Interviewer] Oh, that’s nice. And what does he give back to you? How does he help you?

[Jonathan] He gives love.

[Interviewer] All right. [laughing]

You can learn more about supporting young people with disabilities as they transition to adulthood at:

Adult Transition Hub Page


Support comes from you, the family, but also from state and local services. Be intentional about helping your child connect with the school or adult services that they have in place. For example:

  • If they’re in college, help them learn how to communicate with the disability services office on their own.

  • If they have a job coach or are in a vocational program, make sure they know how to ask for help and advocate for more support if they need it.

  • If they get government benefits like SSI (Supplemental Security Income) or Medicaid, help them learn how to navigate those systems.

Give your child support while they learn these new skills, but scale it back as they get more independent. Let them know you’ll be there if they need help. It’s less stressful to be independent if you know you have a safety net, and people have your back!

Learn more:

How do I help my teen with a disability prepare for the transition to adult life?

Perspectives 4 Parents Blogs about Transition

  • Julie McKinney, MS

    Director of Training / Health Literacy Specialist

    Julie McKinney has over 25 years of experience in health literacy, plain language, and adult education. She has deep expertise in writing information so it’s easy to understand, and has developed trainings for educators in clear communication.

    At Exceptional Lives, she ensures that our content is clear and friendly. She also works to strengthen relationships with community partners, and designs trainings that help them connect with families.
    Julie also has experience parenting kids with ADHD, learning disabilities and significant intellectual disability. She has ushered her own children through schooling and transition to adulthood, and is committed to helping make this process easier for others.

    Her core view is that good relationships are the key to just about anything we hope for.

    Follow me on LinkedIn
    Profile photo of Julie McKinney
  • Enjoying our content? Sign up for our newsletter to receive useful information like this and updates from Exceptional Lives, straight to your inbox.

    Or Call844-354-1212

    Enjoying our content? Let's stay in touch!

    • Expert disability advocacy & parenting tips.
    • Customized to your needs.
    • No selling your information.
    • No Spam, ever.
    What's your relationship to the disability community?