Valerie Herskowitz, MA, CCC-SLP
Strategies for addressing the needs of teens/young adults with autism
If you are a parent of a child with autism, do you ever think about the future? I mean, the time when your child will be an adult or even when you will no longer inhabit this planet? If you have a young child, it seems like that period is far away. You may think that you have a long time until you need to think about these things. But in reality, that is not true.
Being a parent to a twenty-one year old son with autism, I am here to tell you that the time that has elapsed since he was merely an adolescent has flown by so fast that my head is spinning. I hate to be a bundle of old clichés, but it really does just seem like yesterday that my biggest problem was dealing with his obsession of needing to go to the dollar store every Saturday and buying him four candles to add to his overwhelming collection. Rain, shine, sickness, or in health, we trotted off to Dollar Tree each weekend to accumulate our weekly allotment. It started with two (never one-always an even number), and then escalated to four. Once, I listened to the behaviorist and told him that I had decided that we were back down to only two. That didn’t go over so well. I ended up on the floor of the store with a display on top of me. I kid you not.
There are three main issues that parents of adolescents with autism face. One is dealing with their developing sexuality. The second is finding a way to make them independent – through a job or vocational training. The third is to help them develop relationships.
The Development of Sexuality
My friends and the parents of the children I have worked with (I am a speech pathologist and life skills specialist) tell me about their children’s adolescent issues. One of the most common concerns is their developing sexuality. During adolescence, most of our children will experience the need to express themselves sexually. It’s really a very tough issue for parents to handle. On one hand, we can’t totally deny that their physical bodies are equivalent, in this respect, to any other teenager. On the other, we can’t allow them to touch themselves in public.
Here are some basic strategies for dealing with this issue:
• Explain or show your child in some way how to take care of business in a very private fashion.
• If your child is becoming interested in a member of the opposite sex, encourage friendship, but make sure it stays platonic on every level.
• Maintain a supportive circle of friends – other parents to special children that are in the same age range as yours – share ideas on what works and what doesn’t.
These issues may seem quite upsetting and overwhelming to parents at the time their child is in their teen years. And it is difficult, though not impossible to handle. Remember, this is a phase, and it will pass as your child outgrows his teen years.
Development of Independence
Before you know it, your child is an adult. Oh boy. Now what? For those with children at this stage of the game, school will be coming to an end. I find that many of the parents I know are often faced with a great deal of disappointment at this time. Many of them had expected that their child would be either college-bound or at the least, vocational school was in the picture. And for some this will happen.
But colleges and vocational schools alike have not kept up with the special accommodations that are necessary to make this experience successful for individuals with autism. My recommendation is not to wait until they have graduated high school to begin to plan out their post-secondary educational experience.
Here are some ways to plan for independence:
• Make sure that you require Life Skills training to be incorporated into your child’s therapy and educational program. It’s not enough to just teach the academics.
• Look at what your child is capable of doing from a job perspective, not just an interest perspective. As an example, your child loves designing flyers on the computer? But would he or she be able to work in a design firm with other people or would working as a free-lance artist make more sense?
• The big drawbacks to employment for our children are not skill-based. The main obstacles are behavioral and social issues. It’s not enough to recommend that your child receive intervention to improve these skills and expect the problem to be solved. I think that if we are to make a dent in the employment dilemma for people on the spectrum, we need to come up with employment options that are designed with our children’s needs in mind, not the other way around. So start thinking about your child in realistic terms early on in the high school years. Get together with other like-minded parents. We may all need to create work opportunities. I know someone who started a bakery in order to employ individuals with autism.
• Think inside the box. We need to just accept the fact that the world of technology is a great avenue for people on the spectrum. It’s not just a cliché. Autism and computers are a marriage made in heaven. For ASD individuals that are skilled at computers, there is an added advantage – a social environment that speaks to them. They will be surrounded by those like them.
• There are those that are not going to be in a school experience as adults. But they will require life skills and job training as well. Not every child has to read and do math to be productive. My son can’t read, but he can do laundry, make beds, and cook a mean quiche. And he is certainly not on the higher end of the spectrum. He is non-verbal and requires twenty-four hours a day supervision. I started his life skills program with him when he was around twelve. At that time, I ran a therapy center for special needs individuals. We had an area we called, Pathways to Independent Living. I required every student over the age of twelve to become involved in this program in some manner, shape or form. It was at that time that I realized that every person could learn to do something functional.
What can you do to encourage independence skills at home?
• Your child should be given responsibilities in the home very early on. Whether it is to put the silverware away, empty the dishwasher, or sort the laundry, every child in the home, including the one with special needs, should have chores. Not only does this teach certain skills, but it also helps to develop self-esteem.
• Being functional and earning money do not need to go hand-in-hand. Certain people just will not be working to live-they will be living to work. So if you have a child who is on the lower end of the functional scale, focus on activities that make them feel purposeful, though not necessarily employable.
• Make technology a big part of your child’s life. See above. Computers go hand-in-hand with autism. I wrote a book called, Autism and Computers: Maximizing Independence Through Technology. In that book I stress that no matter where on the spectrum your child lies, technology can be a very important aspect to creating more independence.
Development of Relationships
Provide opportunities for your child to experience friendship with others on the same social level. I’m not saying that he/she can’t have typical friends as well. Just don’t put your child in a situation where he or she is the odd or different one all the time. In the long run, your child will most likely be happier and more successful in a peer group with other people with developmental disabilities.
By planning ahead, teaching life skills to your son or daughter early on, and building a network of supports, we can help our children become productive members of the community.
Valerie Herskowitz has been a speech pathologist since 1978. She was the founder of Dimensions Therapy Center, a facility that offered therapy services to children with special needs. She is the author of 2 books, ‘Always Leave Them Laughing’ and ‘Autism and Computers: Maximizing Independence Through Technology’.
Ms. Herskowitz is the recipient of the Stevie Lifetime Achievement Award for her work with autistic and special needs children. To contact her, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her website www.valerieherskowitz.com
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