“What category do you think this goes in?” asks Caitlyn. The eight students on the living room couch before her contemplate the purple t-shirt she is holding up and decide it goes in the ‘darks’ pile.
Caitlyn Silhavy is an occupational therapy doctoral student from Rush University and co-leader of Urban Autism Solution’s Life Lab, a program designed for young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities and communication disorders. Students from the Ray Graham Training Center at Foreman, a transition center in Chicago, come to the UAS Life Lab townhouse twice a week to practice everyday skills to help them lead more independent lives as they transition to adulthood. Today, they are practicing all the steps involved in doing laundry, including sorting, washing, drying, and folding.
ABOVE: Caitlyn (tan sweater) demonstrates how to sort, fold and wash laundry with students from the Ray Graham Training Center.
“The townhouse is an ideal environment for the students to practice what occupational therapists refer to as ‘activities of daily living’ – cooking, cleaning, organizing, shopping and other routine self-care tasks,” says Caitlyn. “By practicing these skills, we hope our students will feel more confident helping out at home or work.”
The Life Lab townhouse is operated by Urban Autism Solutions and is located in the Little Italy neighborhood. It has a basement with a laundry room, a main level with a kitchen, pantry, living room and bathroom and an upstairs with three bedrooms and another full bathroom. UAS Life Lab participants will have opportunities to practice cooking, cleaning and other self-care tasks at the townhouse over the four months of the program.
For many of us, when we think of occupational therapy, perhaps we think of recovering from carpel tunnel syndrome, or returning to work after a fractured leg. But “occupational therapy encompasses anything that we can do to help an individual gain independence in performing the meaningful activities of life, which often includes managing household chores, personal hygiene and grooming,” says Emmalyn Lopez, also an occupational therapy doctorate student from Rush University, and co-leader of the UAS Life Lab.
Before the OTs start the hands-on portion of each module, Caitlyn and Emmalyn go over each task using visual aids and demonstrations. Caitlyn points to pictures of how to fold shirts and pants. Next, each student gets a chance to practice the skills.
“Easy or hard?” asks Caitlyn after a student named Q presents her with his neatly folded shirt. “Hard,” he says, emphatically. Caitlyn agrees, “doing laundry can be hard, but it’s a part of living more independently and it will become easier with practice.”
Next, Caitlyn takes groups of two students at a time to the laundry room to practice loading the washing machine and dryer. Caitlyn provides each student with a visual schedule, which helps individuals clearly understand and sequence-specific tasks. Each student follows the steps on the schedule to place the laundry into the washer, add the detergent pod, and adjust the setting dials so they match the pictures on the schedule. The students also have the advantage of observing their peers perform the activity, a concept known as peer modeling.
“Our goal with practicing these skills is to give students a chance to increase their autonomy and independence,” says Emmalyn. “Being able to demonstrate these skills in an actual house is just the icing on the cake – the more realistic we can make these experiences, the easier it is for students to transfer these skills to their own homes.”