Preparing Students with Asperger Syndrome for Postsecondary Life
You can get A’s in school and still flunk at life – Walker Percy
Students with Asperger Syndrome (AS) frequently find themselves unprepared for the transition to independent life upon graduation from high school. Although they may have excellent grades and/or test scores, many of these students lack the “pre-academic” (organizational and time management) and basic living skills needed for independent living. Often, they are isolated from their peers and have few, if any, friends. Communication, pragmatic language and social skills are limited. They struggle to manage sensory input (temperature, noise, odor, close quarters) and experience heightened sensitivities that interfere with functioning. Interactions are awkward, hard work and stressful. Anxiety is pervasive. These young people are unaware of the “hidden curriculum,” the unwritten rules most people take for granted and that support social interactions (see Myles in this issue). Although adaptive behaviors and basic life skills are acquired quite naturally by the neurotypical population (people without autism spectrum disorders), our students with AS do not develop these skills spontaneously. While neurotypicals seem to instinctively know “the rules of the road,” “Aspies” frequently feel like “aliens” who have landed on an unfamiliar planet where they do not know the rules. They must be taught these skills in a direct and explicit manner. At long last, parents and professionals have begun to give more attention to appropriate and timely preparation for adult life by addressing these essential life skills during the high school years.
We’re Teaching the Wrong Stuff
So, what do we need to do? First of all, we (parents, educators, college faculty, staff and the students themselves) must acknowledge that changes need to be made in the curriculum for these students. Authentic, comprehensive transition plans need to be developed as the student moves to the high school level (or before). These transition plans need to be developed from the results of a formal assessment of the communication, presentation of self (hygiene, appearance), social, organizational and life skills that our teens with AS often do not acquire as easily as their neurotypical peers.
Despite their average to superior intelligence, students with AS are often unsuccessful in college and tend to have great difficulty obtaining appropriate work. We need to examine the criteria for these students to graduate from high school and revise our perception that academic preparation is sufficient. For neurotypical students, this may be true; for the AS population, it is not. A systematic, integrated program for meeting these non-academic needs must be implemented at the high school level or earlier, such as the following:
- Grade 8: Administer Independent Life Skills Assessment (ILSA) (Korin 2007)
- Grade 9: Develop transition plan based on ILSA
- Grades 9-12: Implement plan
This program will require the reconfiguring of graduation requirements so that life skills can be substituted for non-essential electives or courses. If a student is unable to get him- or herself out of bed in the morning on his or her own, or if (s)he cannot extricate him or herself from the computer in order to attend class, the student will find it difficult to succeed in college. These students do not need more advanced physics or math. Many adults with AS have advanced degrees, often from top-tier schools, but cannot get through a job interview. As a result, too many AS adults are unemployed or underemployed. We cannot let this happen with our young people. We must teach them what they need in order to be able to use their gifts and talents.
Reprinted with the permission of the Autism Society.
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