The Big Picture
Individuals on the autism spectrum tend to live in the “short term”. In any given moment they may be engaged with an intense focus or interest, and their focus may only intensify if the object of interest is taken away or not accessible. They may also perseverate on an idea or concern in any moment, even getting “stuck” and unable to get on with their day because of it. Moreover they can be sensitive to everything going on around them in the moment: how their clothing feels, smells, crowds, noise. There are demands for interactions with others for which they may feel unprepared. Living in each moment tends to be intense for them, and requires a lot of their energy and focus. Anxiety compounds the issues they experience, and they gravitate toward their “comfort zones”, where they can avoid the unknown future, having little energy or confidence with which to meet it. Individuals with high functioning autism and Asperger’s become very practiced over the course of their lives at getting through “the moment” and may lack the regular experience of looking forward.
Having a broad, balanced, and realistic view of themselves as adults is what I am calling “the big picture”, and I believe that it is crucial to the independent futures of young people with high functioning autism and Asperger’s. Whether it is because of a lifetime of practice at focusing just a short distance ahead of themselves, or whether it is something more organic to the condition of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), many if not most of these young people tend to have difficulty looking forward and making future plans. They may fail to take a broad view of their futures, and struggle to take stock of the multiple factors that may affect their futures. They may lack appreciation of all the issues that their condition of ASD and their personal strengths,weaknesses, and interests bring to the search for their future.
This is where you as a parent or other loved one can help! Obviously you need to talk about your child’s future with him or her, but you are liable to have difficulty overcoming their “living in the moment” as described above. You can better convey to your child a broad view of their future if you yourself have a good grasp of what will be required for your child to be successful as an adult, and how ASD may impact them. If you tackle those issues in partnership with your child on a daily basis over months and/or years, with frequent references to the points outlined below, you build the confidence and skills for him or her to look forward, make plans, and take appropriate steps. Future blogs will talk in detail about all of these areas and more.
Talk with your child about/learn about soft skills. Remember that school primarily teaches “hard skills”, but your child’s future depends much more on his or her development of “soft skills”. Soft skills, especially social communication skills, are the heart of success in employment and relationships as an adult. Resist the temptation to focus on academics, even if this is a strength for your child. Your child may have straight A’s in school, but this does not mean that they will be successful in life. Many young adults on the autism spectrum have advanced degrees but lack employability skills and are unable to be independent. Soft skill strengths, especially those involving social communication, are the key to independent futures.
Talk with your child about strengths and weaknesses, with an emphasis on soft skill strengths: yours, your child’s, other family members’ and friends’. Notice them, praise them, connect them to consequences: the respect they show, the reputation they make with others, and the positive impact they have in other ways.
Talk with your child about, and positively frame, your child’s high functioning autism or Asperger’s. Your child should know that he or she is on the autism spectrum, and should recognize the likely issues (and strengths!) that usually come with it. Refer to Autism Spectrum Disorder casually and often, especially when issues arise, “You know, I think that’s one of those ASD issues, let’s take a break and start again”.
Talk with your child about their preferences, ie what they like and don’t like, and work out a deal with them to engage in a variety of activities with a variety of people, and explain why. Have open dialogues about ASD often, and try to work together against their desire to stay in their comfort zone. They must be uncomfortable to grow! They need to become practiced at doing non-preferred activities and having real work experience with strangers so that they can be ready for adulthood and the world of work. With your guidance they also need to be realistic about what jobs are available in the area they want or need to live in, what they pay, and they must hear again and again that preferred activities may not earn the money needed to live independently and may be better as pastimes or hobbies outside of work. Your state agency for vocational support of individuals with disabilities can be a big help with this, and can sometimes say the things that your child won’t accept from you! Start as young as possible with such an agency, usually by age 16.
Stay tuned for future blogs about many of these topics!