Part of my role as a Speech-Language Pathologist is to prepare my students for life AFTER school. For those children with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's Syndrome, this includes preparing for college and for the workplace. The employment rate for these students is 55%, which is lower than those with intellectual disabilities. As our kids start high school, the question of "What's next?" is always at the back of our minds.
Students with HFA/AS don't need vocational training in the traditional sense. Rather, they should be supported in their strengths (e.g. art and video game creation) and supported in their areas of weakness (e.g. conflict management, executive functioning skills, social discourse). That being said, it's important that they learn work-management skills in order to be successful in future jobs. There are some basic skills for success that we can support, both as parents and professionals.
To begin with, explore work and volunteer experiences during high school. If your child has a fondness for animals, look into shelter work. If your child loves books, the library provides endless volunteer opportunities stocking shelves and assisting with reading programs. If your child has a knack for computers, reach out to the high school computer lab teacher and ask if your child can help load new programs, troubleshoot problems, and assist those students who need extra help. Besides the hands-on training that these volunteer experiences provide, your child will be learning many executive functioning skills: how to prioritize, time management (showing up for work on time), asking questions and communicating with bosses, responding to criticism or strict guidelines, following rules, and in general operating within the constraints that come with many employment situations.
It is also important that we support our students in extracurricular activities. Like the work situations previously described, extracurricular activities allow our children to capitalize on their strengths and address some areas of weakness. Joining chess club for your chess whiz, for example, allows your child to feel successful in an area of strength, while also pursuing friendships and relationships with peers.
As we progress through therapy, I have frequent conversations with my students about college, the work world, their dreams and goals for the future, and the different skills they will need to get there. The same goal-setting and reality-checking can be applied at home. Students with HFA/AS are often unrealistic about the future and the steps needed to achieve certain goals or dreams. Focus on helping and supporting your child. We aren't trying to "change" them, but rather give them an understanding of their diagnosis and the best way to live successfully with their neurological differences.
In high school, we begin to pull away some of the special accommodations, or at least encourage the student to begin addressing what they need to be successful. After school, the world won't compensate for them, so it's important that they learn how to ask for what they need. Self-advocacy becomes a crucial skill to be learned. Your student can participate in their IEP or teacher meetings, and role playing at home strengthens their awareness of what their needs might be. For example, before their college entrance exam (like the SAT), role play what the setting is going to feel like, what their emotions might be, and how they might know the answers to the questions but the environment could be distracting. Set up a plan to address some of these distractions or feelings, and problem-solve how they are going to handle the rest.
If you'd like to read more, there are many online resources (http://mappingyourfuture.org/collegeprep/, www.collegeautismspectrum.com/collegeprograms/html) as well as books (try "The Parent's Guide to College for Students on the Autism Spectrum" or "Preparing for College: An Online Tutorial") to help you help your child navigate this next phase of their life.
Once your child is in college, the journey isn't over. The dropout rate for our kids is 40%, so these conversations and check-ins need to continue to happen. It sounds like a lot of parenting, I know it sometimes seems exhausting, and at some point you'd like to just step back and let them fly. But I know from experience that you are some of the most steadfast parents around. Your kids grow up quickly in some areas, but slowly in other areas, so make sure you don't send them off too soon. The world will continue to be a better place for the contributions your children make to their school, workplace, and community. And your role in making that happen is more important than ever.