April is Autism Acceptance Month, a time to increase understanding and acceptance of people with autism, and to provide continued support, kindness, and compassion for the autism community. The hope is to ignite change through improved support and opportunities in all areas of life including education, employment, and independent living.
Many young adults are in need of support during the transition time after high school, and this time frame can be especially challenging for young adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Recently published reports by the AJ Drexel Autism Institute Life Course Outcomes Program show that about one-third of high school graduates with ASD attend college, less than 20% of adults with ASD live independently, and less than 60% of adults with ASD have a job. This data means that many young adults with ASD struggle to live independently. The media often refers to this concept as “failure to launch” and usually with a humorous twist. But for parents of young adults with ASD, and the young adults themselves, this can be a very challenging and frustrating time.
For teens with ASD who are still in high school, life is generally pretty structured. Parents wake them up in the morning when it’s time to get ready for school, breakfast is prepared, transportation to and from school is provided, dinner is ready in the evening, followed by hours of screen time, until teens finally climb into bed with freshly laundered sheets. Many teens with ASD have school friends to hang out with and money for events. Until high school graduation, teens with ASD are not confronted by many daily decisions.
But the end of high school eventually arrives, and now the teens are faced with the scary, confusing, and utterly overwhelming question, “What happens next?”
Facing this transition, and all of the daily decisions that now have to be made, can cause many young people with ASD to withdraw and isolate as a coping mechanism. Another common coping strategy for these young people is excessive computer use as an escape from the stress of their parents’ and society’s expectations. Many parents sense that their adult child does want social connections, a job with friendly co-workers, and academic success in college. But both the parents and the young adult feel “stuck.”
So rather than dwell on the failure to launch, a more positive perspective is to help young adults with ASD to get “unstuck” and move forward with their lives. One way to approach this is to have a conversation with the young adult, determine an achievable goal, and delineate what small steps need to be taken to achieve that goal.
For example, if the idea of college feels insurmountable for a young adult, maybe taking just one interesting but not too challenging class may be acceptable. Provide help to set up a meeting with the college’s Office of Disabilities and perhaps have the young adult meet with a Life Skills Coach to provide necessary support. The goal doesn’t have to be getting an “A” in the class, but rather the beginning of a sense of mastery and competence. Once there is a foundation of achievement, further success can then be built. A next step may be enrolling in two classes the next semester, or staying with one class and adding a part time campus job.
If a young person’s goal is to find a job, a small step toward that goal may be volunteering at an organization of interest. Volunteering is a great way to learn how to function in a work environment, how to make small talk and show interest in your colleagues, and the importance of being on time. Once there is success at the volunteer position, a next step can be obtaining a part time paid position.
Parents of young adults with ASD often describe their adult child as rigid and easily overwhelmed. One strategy is to start small and transition the young adult to being responsible for their daily living decisions. Perhaps an agreement can be made that the parent will wake their adult child up, but the young adult will make their own breakfast. Cheer and praise all the small steps along the way.
Another suggestion for parents is to follow the mantra of “comparison is the thief of joy.” Yes, it can be hard to see the young adult children of friends moving out of the house and into independent adult lives. Dr. Laurie Stephens, a Senior Director at The Help Group, offers this perspective: “You can take a train or a plane from Los Angeles to Washington DC. It may be faster to get there by plane, but the train will get there all the same, just at a later date.”
It is never too early to start teaching independence. The sooner a young person is provided support to begin opportunities for taking responsibility and managing aspects of their life, the sooner that person may be able to launch successfully to independent adulthood.. Focus on teaching day-to-day living skills and offer support and praise, and one day your young adult with ASD will have a sense of pride in their own self-sufficiency.