Young Adults with Autism: 3 Components for Post-High School Success

autism transitions

When discussing assessment and support for autism spectrum disorder, much of the focus tends to be on younger children. However, the demand is growing for help transitioning older students to independent, successful living.

What happens when a person with autism turns 21 and is no longer eligible for school services? And what role can SLPs play in helping ensure success beyond high school?

These three components should be a part of any transition plan for a student with autism.

Perspective Taking

The foundation of social communication is perspective taking. Perspective taking is the ability to understand how someone else might be thinking and how this is different from your own thoughts. This information is then used to modify social behavior.

As humans, we use perspective taking all the time when we interpret other’s facial expressions, body language, tone, and words. Most people understand these principles intuitively, but those with autism often require explicit instruction in how to identify—and adapt their behaviors to—the perspective of others.

autism courses

Social Communication

One of the biggest challenges with teaching social competencies is that there are no hard and fast rules. What’s appropriate socially changes depending on the environment.

Take masks, for example. Today, it is expected to wear a mask, whereas before the pandemic hit, it would have been unexpected to see someone wearing a mask. In that case, you might have tried to understand that person’s perspective (maybe they are ill), but wearing a mask still wouldn’t have fit with what you considered “normal,” unless you were at a hospital.

As another example, crossing one’s arms is commonly associated with anger, but a person who crosses their arms isn’t always angry. For instance, you might cross your arms because it’s more comfortable.

In addition to reading and interpreting social cues, it is important for young adults to learn the ins and outs of professional communication. This can include discussing the dos and don’ts of communicating in the workplace, discussing how to initiate conversation in a networking setting, learning how to self-advocate for one’s needs throughout the day, and practicing greeting supervisors and coworkers. Because these skills are heavily dependent on the environmental context—what’s appropriate at one company might not be appropriate at another—it is important to teach clients how to think about the social world.

For more information on perspective taking and social communication, I recommend the Social Thinking book, Good Intentions Are Not Good Enough.

Executive Functioning

Executive functioning skills are crucial for successful independent living.

In both college and the workforce, young adults with autism may have a hard time adhering to deadlines without explicit instruction from teachers and parents. Organization often becomes more challenging as demands increase. Digital calendars like Google Calendar can be helpful for scheduling events, setting reminders, and creating to-do lists.

Skills needed for independent living such as meal planning and commuting to work or school all require executive functioning skills such as planning and time management.

When working with transition-aged students, it is important for speech-language pathologists to help their students learn about perspective taking, developing social communication competences, and implementing strategies to help with executive functioning. Together, these skills can help students achieve personal and professional success after high school.