Color & Control:

Financial Literacy

Functional living skills need to be incorporated into the child’s life as soon as possible and financial literacy is one often forgotten.

Knowing how to make, handle, and save money increases an individual’s quality of life.

By James Ball, EdD, BCBA-D

Money drives our society, so therefore financial literacy is a vital skill to master for individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Knowing how to make money, handle it, and save it increases an individual’s quality of life. So financial literacy needs to be a big part of any individual’s to-master list. Many of these skills can be taught during the school-age years and continued into adulthood.

Functional living skills need to be incorporated into the child’s life as soon as possible and financial literacy is one often forgotten. We do money identification for instance, but rarely discuss credit and how to handle money in the real world, let alone teach it and practice it in real-life situations.

tk-money2Teaching financial literacy
How Money Works. This could begin with identifying the coins and bills of the monetary system. Often we can teach this by a token system. A child earns “money” and is able to use it to purchase a desired item from a list. The higher priced items are more valuable to the child, thus getting him to “bank” some money to save for that particular item. This concept can then be generalized to a real environment like a store or fast-food restaurant. Once the child understands the concept of money, you can introduce other financial literacy concepts.

If the individual does not have any interest or cannot grasp the concept of money and how it relates to his needs and wants, then you must make the acquisition of financial literacy skills more functional. For example, if he cannot count money or is unable to calculate change, teaching him how to put a bill in a vending machine and waiting to collect change is a much more functional skill. If he can sequence numbers, but cannot calculate change, teaching him to give the correct bill for a purchase would be a good place to start (i.e., if the cost is $7, have the child give a $10 bill). The faster you can generalize this instruction to a real-life situation, the better.

How to Create a Budget. Making a written or visual plan (using a bar graph or manipulatives) to show the amount of money a child earns and how much he spends is a great way to teach financial literacy. Sitting down with the child and going over the exact amount of money coming in, then deducting the amount going out, will help him better see where his money is going. A great way to start teaching this is to give him an allowance and spending chart, which includes certain things around the house (e.g., food, rent, electric bill, cell phone).

Being concrete as to what a need is versus what is fun or a want is also critical. Use written and visual supports to show the needs and wants (e.g., pictures of needs). Help the individual understand how to prioritize (to distinguish between needs and wants) to reach financial success.

How to Spend Wisely. When teaching an adult, you need to have a discussion about why he is working—to make money because it buys those things he needs and wants. Once you have had this conversation and are comfortable that the adult with ASD understands the relationship of work, income, and needs versus wants, you can start the process of divvying up the money (i.e., categories such as housing, utilities, food, transportation, wants).

Start with setting up a bank account with a debit card attached. Teach the adult how to use an automated teller machine (ATM): how to deposit, withdraw and determine the account balance. Teach the adult who cannot add or subtract how to use the ATM and how to access the money prior to making a purchase. Then, based on the formation of his budget, encourage him to put the appropriate amount of money away to pay those bills. The remainder can go into the want category.

In basic, concrete terms, discuss major purchases, like a TV or iPad tk-money3and show him how to save for that item. Have a visual of the object he wants, the amount, and how much has been saved, showing how the amount needed is nearing the goal over time.

How Credit Works. The best way to teach this final part of financial literacy is to put specific rules down for the use of a credit card. To start, it may be used only for emergencies. As time goes on, you can add other reasons to use the card. To begin, get a card with a low credit limit or a prepaid card. This way, you have ample teaching opportunities, if needed, prior to the situation’s getting out of control. It is important to discuss how the bill will be paid. Show the adult what will happen every month; he will receive a bill that must be paid from the money in his budget. If he exceeds the budget, payment may have to come out of his major purchases fund.

Most important, have a double-check system, as most businesses do. When a check is written or cash is paid over a certain amount (e.g., over $1,000), it must be approved first. Make it the rule!

Becoming financially literate is all about teaching and learning. By keeping a close eye on the adult’s finances, you can open the discussion to help him learn these skills. Furthermore, it is crucial to teach these concepts to school children to set the stage for lifelong knowledge and know-how. There’s no doubt that financial literacy can greatly improve everyone’s quality of life.

James Ball, EdD, BCBA-D, has been working in the field of autism for 20+ years helping children, teens, and adults with ASD. Learn more about Jim’s consulting services company on

Reprinted with permission from the 2012 and 2013 issues of Autism Asperger’s Digest, a bimonthly magazine on autism published by Future Horizons, Inc.


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