My son often has been called “high functioning” by professionals because he is bright and able to participate well in the mainstream classroom. He has had a lot of interventions over the years, including therapy and accommodations at school, and is now in his senior year. I have heard that some people with autism really struggle as they enter young adulthood, and I’m particularly worried that we might be overlooking something because of the “high functioning” label. Do you have any tips for helping him be successful moving forward?
Dear Proactive Parent,
You raise some important issues, including whether the label of “high functioning” can be problematic and how challenging transition can be for anyone with special needs. When a child is labeled as “high functioning,” it can have the positive effect of highlighting their strengths, but it also can lead to people minimizing or overlooking real challenges that need to be addressed. Some things to consider as your child moves forward:
Make sure your child is well-educated about his autism.
It is important for young adults to understand their particular characteristics of autism, both in terms of how they might be helpful, as well as how they might be challenging. For example, if your child has intensive interests, this can be helpful in a vocation that incorporates those interests, or a bridge to meeting others who share those interests. It also may be a challenge if your child tends to avoid important, non-preferred activities in favor of said interests. The more self-aware your child is, the more equipped he will be to be to navigate difficult situations and capitalize on his gifts.
Help your child develop self-advocacy skills.
Parents often have a primary role in ensuring that their children receive the supports they need. As your child gets older, involve him as much as possible in the process. For example, instead of identifying an unmet need and e-mailing a teacher yourself, involve your child in the dialogue and help him draft the e-mail. It is easy to underestimate how difficult it can be to ask for help, and getting as much practice as possible increases young adults' ability to identify when they need support and how to communicate the need effectively.
Talk to your child about when and how to self-disclose.
Because autism can be an invisible disability, but often still requires accommodations, it is important that young adults know when it might be useful to disclose their autism diagnosis and how they might explain it. For example, if your child is college bound, you might talk through scenarios when explaining his diagnosis to a professor could be useful and develop a “script” for doing so.
Help your child develop self-regulation skills.
Adulthood is stressful, and young adults with autism can have added stressors due to challenges like sensory overload, executive functioning difficulties, or social anxiety. Having a variety of effective coping skills is vital. What works for each individual varies; help your child experiment with different ideas: guided relaxation, talking through concerns with a trusted person, exercise, or engaging in a soothing activity. Including a therapist in these conversations also could be helpful.
Encourage connection to both informal and formal supports.
Young adults with autism can lose long-standing structured supports provided by school, including friends they have know for years and automatically see every day, and professionals who check in with them on site. It can be easy to assume that your child has absorbed enough skills to build similar supports in young adulthood, but that is not always the case. Help your child consider his unique social and support needs, and develop a plan for how to meet those needs, whether it's through finding clubs, ASD support groups, and/or therapy.
Preparing a child for young adulthood is an ongoing process. The fact that you are thinking proactively and aware of the pitfalls a “high functioning” label might have increases the chances that you will find effective ways to help your son have a positive transition into adulthood. Congratulations on entering the next phase of parenthood!