Preparing for College and the Workplace

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.

What’s an Aspergirl?

When they hear the term “Asperger’s Syndrome”, many people picture a male with eccentricities, sensory sensitivities, poor social skills, and areas of giftedness or hyperfocus.  “Aspergirls” – the term made popular by Rudy Simone, an adult female with Aspergers – highlights the subculture of females with Asperger’s Syndrome, as well as the unique characteristics displayed by female “Aspies”.  One of my favorite, original “Aspergirls” is Dr. Temple Grandin, who has done wonders for the subculture of Aspergirls by sharing her frank and honest personal experiences with the world.

Young females with Asperger’s Syndrome are often overlooked in the early years and do not receive a diagnosis until their teens or beyond.  They are often shy, introverted, and bookish, characteristics which are more socially acceptable in females than in their male counterparts.  Aspergirls usually have areas of strong interest, like males, but again these often manifest themselves in more socially acceptable ways, such as having an interest in fairytales, horses, or art.

The lack of a diagnosis, however, means these girls are often dealing on their own with sensory overload, social confusion, and feelings of insecurity and frustration.  As Rudy writes in her book “Aspergirls”: “If there is no diagnosis then there is a vacuum – a hole in which to pour speculation and fill with labels.”  With diagnosis comes support -whether from therapist and professionals, within an IEP program at school, or from support groups with like-minded girls and families.

I highly recommend reading “Aspergirls” by Rudy Simone if you would like more information about your child or children you work with.  The book was frank and blunt, and Rudy gives practical advice to young girls, women, and their parents.  If your daughter exhibits characteristics of an “Aspergirl”, there are many things you can do at home.

1. Praise and encourage.  Aspergirls are often very emotionally vulnerable, and they need heaps of positive reinforcement.

2. Seek out information online.  Resources like Rudy Simone’s website: www.help4aspergers.com and www.aspie.com offer a lot of helpful information.

3. Find a support group in the area.  Social skills groups run by speech-language pathologists work on pragmatic language skills and peer relationships.  Two groups I know about in the Portland area include: www.artzcenter.org and www.campyakketyyak.org

4. Support your child’s areas of strength.  Those are the areas where they will shine.  As Rudy wrote: “Life is about making a contribution, not about being popular and fitting in.”

5. Create a soothing, quiet environment in your child’s room at home.  Soft music, comfortable pillows, and soft lighting help ease the sensory overload.

6. Help your child maintain a healthy diet and get exercise.  These can help with intestinal issues and alleviate depression and anxiety.  You want to help teach your child what they need to manage their Asperger’s.

7. Love your child for who they are.  You can support them and guide them, but you can’t change them. Forcing them to be someone different will only result in hurt, loss, and alienation as they grow older.  Help them fit the pieces of their life together.

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