Many young children with developmental delays benefit from the strategy of placing a major focus on teaching critical language and other basic learning skills (e.g., imitation skills). The methods used to teach various “concepts” typically involves mastering multiple examples of arbitrarily chosen targets until the learner can demonstrate knowledge of this skill. When learning enough examples occurs, it is the hope that those concepts can be applied in a useful manner as skills that are relevant to a learner’s life. For example, sorting is an important conceptual skill. Teaching a child the concept that “like things go with like things” by sorting bears, blocks, colors, shapes, and other basic examples are commonly used to teach this basic skill. However, the concept of sorting has practical usefulness in daily lives when the learner sorts silverware into a silverware organizer, laundry into whites and dark colors, groceries into items that go into the refrigerator or the pantry, etc. If the skill does not in some way make the learner less dependent on others, it is not a functional task. There is a certain point in a learner’s life when conceptual learning, like sorting shapes and colors, needs to be replaced with specific practical skills required to improve a learner’s independence.
Similar to the way in which conceptual learning requires a shift to a functional basis, learning early childhood developmental sequences also has a limited duration of usefulness. Developmental language is an excellent example. Teaching a child with autism or developmental disabilities with the developmental approach to language teaches language skills using the same sequence skills that emerge during typical language acquisition. Sound imitation, word approximations, using words, multiple-words, and sentences, and then progressing to more appropriate grammar and syntax are taught as labeling and meanings of the things around us are simultaneously learned. This is a long road for all children and even in the best cases takes years of daily modeling and effective instruction at home and at school. However, for many children with special needs, formalized vocal speech or a structured language and communication system is unachievable using the developmental sequence. The later in life developmental language milestones remain unmet, the more difficult they will be to achieve. If a learner in high school is still being instructed to sort counting bears and make vocal imitation sounds, valuable time may be lost in preparing that learner for a more independent life after school ends.
There should be continued efforts made to teach the basic language and conceptual skills, but in some situations, greater emphasis should be placed on functional skills. This transition should be based in part by learner’s age, his language and communication skills, and other skill repertoires. The shift from conceptual and developmental learning sequences to learning more adaptive everyday functional skills should follow assessment data to guide what to teach. In the same manner, any effective instruction and teaching curriculum should be guided by accurate and comprehensive assessment data.
Everyone needs functional skills. Failing to meet developmental norms or language goals are not the only triggers for functional skills programs to be included into a learner’s educational program. The long-term goal of every learner, young and old, with any range of disabilities, should be the opportunity to reaching his potential, with minimal supports, and being as overall independent as possible. Functional skills are the keys to these goals.