Preparing Students with Asperger Syndrome for Postsecondary Life (page 3)
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.
What Do Students with AS Need?
Students with AS need to learn and understand the following skills to be able to function effectively in their school, work and home environments.
1. Self-knowledge and self-advocacy
a. Know your profile—identifying personal characteristics of AS and the ways they operate to your advantage and disadvantage
b. Take control of your profile by capitalizing on strengths (high intelligence, attention to detail) and working to diminish or eliminate constraints (lack of flexibility, black & white thinking, executive functioning challenges)
c. Develop ways to communicate your needs at school, work and home, and with other groups or individuals
d. Seek assistance, allies and coaching
2. Self-care skills
a. Basic hygiene—tooth brushing, showering, hair washing and combing, etc.
b. Presentation of self—dress and clothing
3. Management of daily living tasks
a. Keeping track of belongings
b. Transportation and travel options
iii. Public transportation
c. Medical care and medications
d. Cooking and laundry
e. Money management
ii. Paying bills
4. The ability to comfortably communicate and interact with others for both professional (academic) and social purposes, including developing and maintaining relationships, friendships and family connections, and having a meaningful relationship with a significant other
a. Perspective taking/theory of mind
b. Understanding the types of relationships and associated behaviors in each category
c. Understanding emotions
d. Being aware of unwritten rules and social conventions
e. Controlling anxiety, stress and meltdowns
5. The ability to perform the pre-academic tasks that enable students to be more successful:
a. Recording assignments
b. Scheduling time for task completion and abiding by the schedule
c. Handing in work in a timely manner
d. Following the academic rules promulgated by teachers
6. Sensory integration techniques
7. The ability to regulate time
b. Meeting deadlines
c. Getting to appointments on time
d. Scheduling work, recreation, relaxation, chores, appointments
Although this is only a partial list of skills needed for successful adult life, it is a good beginning in the process of preparing our AS students for independent living. If we attend to these and the other gaps in their development, we can help these young people attain a higher quality of life and achieve many of their goals.
Buron, K.D., & Curtis, M. (2004). The Incredible 5-Point Scale: Assisting Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders in Understanding Social Interactions and Controlling Their Emotional Responses. Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Company.
Jackson, L. (2002). Freaks, Geeks and Asperger Syndrome: A User Guide to Adolescence. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Korin, E.S.H. (2006). Asperger Syndrome—An Owner’s Manual: What You, Your Parents and Your Teachers Need to Know. Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Company.
Korin, E.S.H. (2007). Asperger Syndrome: An Owner’s Manual 2—For Older Adolescents and Adults: What You, Your Parents and Friends, and Your Employer Need to Know. Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Company.
Reprinted with the permission of the Autism Society.
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