Opinion: Two Ways to Help Young Adults With Autism Succeed

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Reaching adulthood can be like “falling off a cliff” of services for young adults with special needs. 

For those with autism spectrum disorder, entering adulthood without their school-based support systems may be exceptionally difficult, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report. The growing demand for transitional services is a direct reflection of the increased number of young people who need help navigating the critical challenges of young adulthood. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 1 in 59 children, or 1.5 percent of 8 year olds, are identified as having autism spectrum disorder.

Even though these bright young adults have great potential, many will return home after college, become underemployed, isolate themselves and lose motivation. As parents and advocates, we still have a long way to go to ensure these students graduate at the same rates as their peers and exit college with the same skill sets. 

Jennifer Kilby

Through my 10 years of experience in special education, I have identified two areas that families of young adults with autism spectrum disorder should focus on to help with the successful transition to adulthood: social competence and executive functioning.

To work on social competence, young adults should deliberately practice social interactions in the natural environment. The social-cognitive learning difference is the most abstract of all learning differences that people with autism must overcome. They often don’t understand the need to interpret what others are thinking and feeling. This inability to understand another person’s perspective contributes to their discomfort and selected isolation. 

Research shows that adolescents with autism spectrum disorder have limited social interactions compared to their peers. This may contribute to a higher rate of unemployment and incarceration. Some strategies to increase social interaction are to volunteer or participate in community service activities, schedule lessons or attend classes outside of school. 

Another best practice is to learn from a social mentor. A social mentor is someone who is a few years older and who acts as a role model for social and problem-solving skills. Research shows that role modeling by positive social mentors in real-life situations carries the highest degree of learning success. For example, practicing reciprocal conversation skills in the natural environment is more powerful with a social mentor than in an artificial classroom environment with a teacher. 

The importance of reciprocal conversations, appropriate body language, maintaining eye contact and consciousness of spatial awareness builds skills that are critical to independent living success. Mentors spend time helping students’ work on their social challenges while encouraging participating in real-world activities. 

Young adults with autism spectrum disorder can also benefit from working on their executive functioning. This can include explicit training on how to plan, set goals and prioritize tasks more effectively.

Executive functioning skills builds confidence, increases comfort with new situations and reduces cognitive drain. Young adults with autism learn these skills best by working in small groups and using visual prompts after multiple experiences in the home, work and community settings.

How well a person makes a transition is usually dependent upon the degree of support that is available. We need to support young adults with autism spectrum disorder and give them the confidence to live as independently as possible.

Jennifer Kilby is a disability rights advocate and the program director at the College Internship Program in Long Beach, a transition program for young adults with learning differences.

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