The adolescent or young adult with high functioning autism or Asperger’s, in my experience, knows that he or she struggles in some areas as compared with peers. But often this knowledge is limited to a general sense that they are failing to make friends, don’t know what to say in conversation, and that they feel anxious, irritated, angry, or frustrated in many situations. It may lead to negativity about themselves and others, hopelessness, and a general sense of social failure. But when asked to rank their abilities with respect to a number of specific soft skills or interpersonal skills, many young people with ASD will indicate that they actually have few or no weaknesses, and therefore have no need for improvement! How can a young person make positive changes or respond positively to constructive criticism (such as they are likely to encounter at work) if they do not understand their issues and if they don’t recognize or acknowledge the need to improve?
What these young people need to develop is insight about themselves and others. Insight is an accurate and deep understanding about strengths and weaknesses, preferences, and interests, as well as an accurate perception of how yours compare to others, impact others, and fit into the larger story of your life path. You, the parent or loved one of a young person with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), are best positioned to help develop this essential insight!
Insight should be specific, fair, accurate, and accepting. That is to say, when you share insights about your young person (and others), you should be specific, fair, accurate, and accepting (within reasonable limits); and, when the young person identifies or expresses their insights, you should help them to be the same. In other words, you need to guide your child to “positively frame” the insights. And where ASD impacts their pattern of strengths, weaknesses, preferences, and interests, or creates intensity in these areas that may be disruptive in their life and in the lives of their loved ones, this should also be spoken of, and positively framed whenever possible. Insights should particularly focus on soft skills, or interpersonal skills. At a minimum and even when the impact is a negative one, ASD needs to be a topic that can easily be discussed, and around which there is a sense of acceptance and support.
When a young person with high functioning autism or Asperger’s has insights that are specific, fair, accurate, and accepting, it can sound like this:
I tend to forget to greet people when I get into groups. I’m a little shy anyway and my autism also makes remembering to say “hello” and “how are you” harder. I know that it might make other people feel like I don’t care about them (which isn’t true), and it might give me a bad reputation at work if I don’t always say hello and ask people how they are when I come in to work. So I put a note in my pocket where I will feel it when I put my car keys in there. It reminds me to speak to everyone when I come in!
I really don’t like to ask for help at work. It makes me very uncomfortable to say I don’t know how to do something. I like to do things on my own, and I get really embarrassed and frustrated if I can’t do something. The fact that I have autism probably makes me feel even worse about asking for help. But if I do something wrong at work I might get fired or have a bad reputation. I also know that sometimes I have to be uncomfortable to learn new things and get better at things. So what I do is I think about my favorite song for a minute right before I ask for help. Then right after I get help I take a break and listen to my song just one time, and then I get right back to work. I worked this out with my boss and he’s okay about it. So far it has helped to keep my frustration level down at a “1” or “2” every time.
How do you grow your adolescent or young adult into a person who can be insightful in this way? You relentlessly, continuously, and positively talk about, demonstrate, point out, and celebrate, across all the various circumstances and activities of his or her life, the following points:
Strengths and weaknesses: yours, theirs, everyone’s--be specific, and note we are all different and it’s okay and even a good thing for many reasons (spell out the reasons!)
Preferences: yours, theirs, everyone’s--be specific, and note that we are all different and it’s okay and even a good thing for many reasons (spell out the reasons!)
Autism Spectrum Disorder: Talk about the fact that your child has this, it has pluses and minuses, and it impacts how they think, feel, and act; this should be at a “matter of fact” level in discussion, and your child should be able to articulate how ASD impacts them and how they feel about it.
Feelings: They are specific (for example, frustrated, anxious, disappointed, embarrassed--not just good, bad, happy, sad), and everyone has them.
Intensity: Reference that it may be impacted by ASD, that others may not have the same intensity in feeling about the same things as they do, and that they need to be able to scale back their intensity from a 3 or 4 to a 1 or 2 (1-not at all, 2--a little, 3--some, 4--a LOT). Intensity of feelings in the workplace are an issue. Scaling back will require coping skills, communication, an understanding of the benefits of others feeling comfortable around them, and the consequences and connections related to their actions. See all of the following bullets!
Coping: Have them help you create a list of Unhelpful Coping things that they do, and a separate list of Helpful Coping things that work for them, and guide them toward the latter again and again.
Communication: Can they describe their strengths and weaknesses, preferences, ASD, feelings, talk positively to themselves to cope and to self advocate, and speak to others for a variety of purposes? You should model the way you want to see them communicate, and then have them say it back, to you and to others. Practice, practice, practice!
Comfortable/Uncomfortable: Everyone wants to be comfortable, and by working at their coping skills, intensity issues, communication, and so forth, they can make others more comfortable and this will show respect to others and improve their reputation. Also, they must learn to tolerate feeling uncomfortable, because if they only stay in their comfort zone they will not grow or improve,
Consequences, “big picture”, making connections: How do their strengths and weaknesses, preferences, ASD, and feelings and intensity impact their lives in this moment, in the “bigger picture”, and also how do they impact the skills, interests, and feelings of others? How are “showing respect” and “their reputations” impacted? Spell it out, and repeat, repeat, repeat!