What You Need to Know About the Benefits of Taking Gap Year With Autism
As a parent, it’s natural to approach life’s tasks in familiar sequences. We hold our toddlers’ hands during those wobbly first steps, stand close by during ventures onto the playground, sit in the bleachers watching our children run on the soccer field, then wave goodbye when they run the local 10K. We walk our children into preschool and kindergarten, drive them to elementary school, drop off in middle school (a block away), and then hold our breath when they drive to high school (unless we still get to drive them to school, but drop off TWO blocks away).
Based on our own growing-up experiences, it is common for our expectations to be that our children will follow in the same footsteps. However, maybe it’s time to brush away our footsteps and present a new, smooth path for our children to forge – with our help, of course!
Children with autism maneuver their way along the education journey with varying degrees of support, depending on their particular challenges. Parents often serve as the primary travel coordinator to advocate for their special needs child and secure the resources needed to facilitate success. So for years and years, this wonderful child, with limitless potential, has the benefit of a team of caring individuals who provides therapy, tutoring, counseling, training, and a variety of social opportunities.
The journey is a bit bumpy along the way, if not downright axle-breaking jarring, but finally, this resilient student makes it to high school graduation – whew! Okay, now what? This is when our old parenting “tapes” start to roll, and we think about which college program will be a potential fit for our son or daughter. We hold onto the fact that he/she is “brilliant” in math and science, and we know that he/she can remember the make and model of every car in the school parking lot. Or perhaps academics aren’t so strong, but your child can play a mean game of Dungeons and Dragons. So, surely, he/she is ready for a college experience, right? Wrong.
Why do we spend so much time, energy, and money building the scaffolding needed to support our treasured child up through 12th grade, only to expect him/her to take a giant leap into the future just because he/she has a high-school diploma in hand?
So take a deep breath and think about this proposal:
1. Don’t jump into a college plan right away. Give you and your “child,” who is no longer a child, the gift of time. The ticking clock is NOT a time bomb!
2. Sit down with your young adult son/daughter and a trusted advisor who understands young adults with autism, and create a list of realistic long-term goals. It might be necessary to complete some assessments to determine the skills and interests which apply to your son/daughter.
3. Then create a list of realistic short-term goals which will lead to the long-term goals.
4. Based on the short-term goals, put together a plan of immediate action(s). This action plan might involve finding a place to, at first observe, and then eventually volunteer in order to see if it really is an area of interest.
5. Investigate your local community college to select one class, only one at first, which will start the preparation toward a potential career path. Whether someone wants to be a computer programmer, a childcare assistant, or a welder, there are classes out there for everyone!
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6. Find transition specialists, if available in your area, who teach classes on life skills, communication skills, and social skills. ALL of these skill sets are necessary to provide the foundation for future independence – whether your son/daughter is planning on going off to full-time college within the next year or two or if he/she is staying in your home for a while.
7. Remember, the next step isn’t only about academics and career preparation. Many autistic individuals stay connected with peers through online gaming or social media but lose the opportunity for face-to-face contact. They still need a structure to encourage social interaction. Many young people with autism retreat into an isolated lifestyle and are very vulnerable to depression. During this “gap” year, find organized social opportunities, led by individuals who understand the autism spectrum.
8. Investigate your community to see if there are specialized centers and/or local programs which provide all or most of the professional services you are seeking. With the increasing awareness of the need for ongoing support for autistic individuals after high-school graduation, programs are now being developed to address this growing demand.
So keeping in mind we all want every person to find his or her own way to an independent, purposeful life, it’s helpful to remember that there is a myriad of ways to get there. Creativity, flexibility, and patience will be in order; but you’ve made it this far – you can do it! Let’s sweep away those footsteps we projected for our adult children and enjoy watching them make their own. A “gap” year might actually be just the bridge your adult child needs.
Pamela Quarterman, MMSc, CCC-SLP, is a speech-language pathologist and veteran educator of children with autism and learning differences. Pamela was an educator, therapist, and the Executive Director of Oak Hill Academy, a special needs private school in Dallas, TX, for thirty years. Pamela is now the creator and Executive Director of the Segue Center (https://www.seguecenter.org) in Dallas, TX, a program providing academic, career, and social support for young adults with autism, learning differences, and/or social anxiety.
This article was featured in Issue 81 – Building Self-Esteem in Kids with Autism