The Autism Blog

4 Ways to Help Your Young Adult with Autism Transition to Independence

August 2, 2012

Guest Writer: Ben Wahl, MSW

The importance of the young adult transition is becoming more recognized within the community of providers who work with young people on the Autism Spectrum. Now if we could just increase that awareness among providers who work with young people who are not on the spectrum.

All joking aside, young people with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are a bellwether. They struggle with the transition from high school precisely because it is a difficult process. Having worked with young adults both neuro-typical and neuro-atypical, I have observed similar challenges for both.

Society tends to cast a view that the young adult transition is a ‘launch’, a sudden shift from dependence to independence. If a young adult is not able to immediately find their path, others are often quick to pass judgment.

We have to be aware of this pressure and bring the young adult transition back into perspective. This is especially true for families with teenagers and young adults who are on the spectrum. The young adult transition is not a ‘launch’; it is a series of steps. Your child with ASD will have some unique steps in this transition process, but they also have great skills to take these steps. Think about it: your child has had a longer road through the school age years, but that also means that your child has accumulated more awareness and resiliency to navigate life after high school.

By taking a more long-term view of the young adult transition, you may find that it begins to evoke less anxiety. This is no small matter; your son or daughter will notice how you approach their transition and will view their transition accordingly.

Building Competencies

With a new perspective on the young adult transition, we can turn our attention to the specific competencies that young people with ASD need to build as they progress towards independence and self-determination. The following concepts will be helpful as you and your child engage in the transition process.

Identify Strengths

The young adults in our Delphi young adult program at Aspiring Youth have helped us to improve services to every client in Aspiring Youth, even our 8 year olds. One of the most important lessons these young adults have given us is the importance of identifying personal strengths. Our Delphi young adults are gaining a greater awareness of their identity and this helps them pursue appropriate education and employment opportunities. The tricky issue for young people with ASD is that this process of self-awareness often comes later than it does for their neuro-typical peers. You can help your son or daughter better understand their strengths and that is an important contribution to their transition process. If they are honing in on a specific topic or activity, acknowledge their ability to maintain a high level of focus. Catch them doing good and remind them that they possess kindness. Point out their loyalty, integrity and consistency. Then, let them know how those traits will be valued in the adult world.

Practice Flexibility

One of the greatest differences between individuals with ASD and their peers is their challenge in being flexible and adapting to new situations. In both groups the transition to adulthood contains many uncertainties. However, the young adult with ASD will have a more difficult time adjusting to the new environment. The antidote is to try new things. While it can certainly take a lot of pre-planning for the middle school or high school student with ASD, any new setting or experience can increase the student’s ability to handle change during their post-high school experience. Taking an audited community college course on ‘Paranormal Activity’. Trying an instrument. Volunteering or interning in a business. All of these pursuits will help the student with ASD build comfort with new settings and experiences and will help prepare them for their adult life.

Build Self-Accountability

Young people with ASD often find it difficult to identify their internal motivation. Yet in the context of preparing for the adult world, the intrinsic pride of achieving a good academic grade is more important than any concrete reward  (ie, screen time) a student might earn. As providers and parents we have to take more steps to help students with ASD build internal motivation and pursue self-directed goals. The approach inherent in ABA therapy may be valid for younger clients and those more significantly impacted by ASD, but for older clients with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome, the ABA emphasis on external rewards and goals developed by the provider (and not the young person) does not build self-accountability and may actually inhibit it. Instead, we can empower ASD teenager and young adults by helping them become better connected to their own personal motivations and goals.

Communicate and Self-Advocate

We often think of ‘social skills’ as the ability to interact with friends, but in the context of the young adult transition it takes on broader meaning. As young people with ASD approach their transition, they need to implement some of their new social skills to increase communication with professors, employers and others in the adult world. Self advocating and communicating to solve conflicts is something that we take for granted. If a teenager with ASD can practice self-advocacy with a teacher, they are building skills that will serve them well in the young adult transition. Similarly, if the teenager can identify and pursue independent social opportunities, they will be building important communication skills for the less structured social world that exists after high school.

While your child’s transition to independence may take longer than some of their peers, it is important to remember that it is not a race. The values and skills that you have helped your child build are what matter the most.

Guest Writer: Ben Wahl, MSW, is the founder and director of Aspiring Youth, which provides social skills groups, summer programs and young adult transition services.