“What do you want to be when you grow up?” This question is first posed to youngsters before they even reach first grade and continues in some form for years to come. Those words can make parents of children with autism cringe. We are not sure what lies ahead for our children in the years to come. In fact, we are often unsure of the status of next week. Our focus is simply to get through the day. But, too often, thoughts of the future wake us up in the middle of the night. What is stimming?
Action can be an antidote to worry. As the moms of two adults with autism, we suggest two avenues of action to help alleviate concerns: focusing on transition-readiness skills now, regardless of the age of your child, and advocating for systems that better meet the needs of individuals on the spectrum.
Although school systems typically focus on the transition to adulthood when students turn 16, parents can start building towards transition at an early age. Starting now, we need to build key skills that will help our children have as much autonomy as possible.
● Exercise choice-making
The ability to make a choice is crucial to self-determination for people with autism. This skill should be part of any intervention plan and practiced frequently in the home. Consider choice-making to be a muscle that requires consistent exercise to become strong. Integrate small choices into every activity: Do you want to put the cap back on the toothpaste before or after you brush your teeth? Do you want to button your jacket from the top or the bottom? Do you want to use your right hand or left hand to turn on that light? Our goal is to help our children move beyond a simple choice between two offered options to an expression of their own preferences throughout their daily lives.
● Increase independence
For many parents of children with limited language, increasing a child’s independence has the downside of potentially decreasing the motivation to communicate. We fear that if the child can get the juice himself, we will miss out on those precious words: “I need juice.” We need to set aside those fears, however, because fostering the spirit of independence is critical to preparing for adulthood. At every opportunity, we need to build our child’s habits of self-care. We can do so without losing communication skills if we, along with our intervention team, focus on continually adding new words to the repertoire.
● Prioritize life skills
As parents, we often want to focus our energy and interventions on academics to the exclusion of life skills, because we feel our window of time is limited. Many suggest teaching life skills at a later date, so their children can keep up with peers in the classroom. That tendency is not surprising, since our culture tends to value academic skills over self-help skills, even in our small children. We cheer if a child can count to ten in a foreign language, but we are less impressed if she knows how to blow her own nose. Parents sometimes view building “functional skills” as giving up on academic skills, but those functional skills should be emphasized at every step of the way. Those are the skills that often determine the long-term quality of life.