Autism Life Skills: 10 Essential Abilities for Children with ASD
Teacher: What are your greatest dreams about your future?”
Jeremy: “I want to have my own house with roommates, good friends, a fun job and be learning.”
Teacher: “What are your greatest fears about your future?”
Jeremy: “That I will not have enough money.”
Teacher: “What barriers might get in the way of accomplishing your goals?”
Jeremy: “You know I need good helpers. I need people that respect my intelligence.”
-Interview with Jeremy Sicle-Kira Transition Year 2007-08
With two teenagers who will soon be out of school, there has been much reflection and soul searching taking place in my home lately as to whether or not we’ve made the right decisions as parents over the years. Rebecca, our neurotypical teenager, has just started driving and is becoming more independent. In hindsight, there is not much I would do differently if we had to start raising her all over again.
My thoughts concerning Jeremy, our 19-year-old son with autism, are somewhat different. Th ose who have seen him on the MTV True Life segment “I Have Autism” will remember his can-do spirit and his determination to connect with other people, but also how challenged he is by his autism. Obviously, there are many more options available to help people like Jeremy today than when he was a baby. Over the last few years, as we considered how to best prepare Jeremy for the adult life he envisioned, I wondered what we could have or should have done differently when he was younger.
This led me to think: What would today’s adults on the autism spectrum point to as the most important factors in their lives while they were growing up? What has made the most impact on their lives as adults in terms of how they were treated and what they were taught as children? What advice did they have to off er on how we could help the children of today? I decided to find out. I interviewed a wide-range of people—some considered by neurotypical standards as “less able,” “more able” and in-between; some who had been diagnosed as children; and some diagnosed as adults. The result of these conversations and e-mails became the basis of my latest book, Autism Life Skills: From Communication and Safety to Self-Esteem and More—10 Essential Abilities Your Child Needs and Deserves to Learn (Penguin, October 2008). Although some areas discussed seemed obvious on the surface, many conversations gave me the “why” as to the challenges they faced, which led to discussions about what was and was not helpful to them. No matter the differences in their perceived ability levels, the following 10 skill areas were important to all.
Making sense of the world is what most adults conveyed to me as the most frustrating area they struggled with as children, and that impacted every aspect of their lives: relationships, communication, self-awareness, safety and so on. Babies and toddlers learn about the world around them through their senses. If these are not working properly and are not in synch, they acquire a distorted view of the world around them and also of themselves.
Most parents and educators are familiar with how auditory and visual processing challenges can impede learning in the classroom. Yet, for many, sensory processing difficulties are a lot more complicated and far reaching. For example, Brian King, a licensed clinical social worker who has Asperger’s, explains that body and spatial awareness are difficult for him because the part of his brain that determines where his body is in space (propioception) does not communicate with his vision. Th is means that when he walks he has to look at the ground because otherwise he would lose his sense of balance.
Donna Williams, Ph.D., bestselling author and self-described “Artie Autie,” had extreme sensory processing challenges as a child and still has some, but to a lesser degree. Donna talks about feeling a sensation in her stomach area, but not knowing if it means her stomach hurts because she is hungry or if her bladder is full. Other adults mention that they share the same problem, especially when experiencing sensory overload in crowded, noisy areas. Setting their cell phones to ring every two hours to prompt them to use the restroom helps them to avoid embarrassing situations.
Many adults found it difficult to tolerate social situations. Some adults discussed how meeting a new person could be overwhelming—a different voice, a different smell and a different visual stimulus—meaning that difficulties with social relationships were not due simply to communication, but encompassed the total sensory processing experience. This could explain why a student can learn effectively or communicate with a familiar teacher or paraprofessional, but not a new one.
The most helpful strategy was knowing in advance where they were going, who they were going to see and what was going to happen, so that they could anticipate and prepare themselves for the sensory aspects of their day. Other strategies included changing their diet, wearing special lenses, having a sensory diet (a personalized activity schedule that provides the sensory input a person’s nervous system needs to stay focused and organized), undergoing auditory and vision therapy, as well as desensitization techniques.
Reprinted with the permission of the Autism Society.