If you are a young adult on the autism spectrum or the parent of one, you have likely heard about the “cliff.” It’s that moment when you are out of high school, not interested in college, but you know you can’t play video games all day every day anymore. All of a sudden, you know you need to leap off that cliff and into your adult life. Are you prepared?
Whether or not you want to, and whether or not you’re ready, you will grow up, so making sure you are ready is a good idea. Here’s what you need:
- Know your community resources. You have many employment supports available, including state vocational agencies, job coaches, day support options, social and soft skills groups, vocational training, and more. Having so many options is great, but choosing among them can be difficult, especially since there may be eligibility requirements in order to use them.So it’s a good idea to start early. Don’t wait until your last year of high school to know what’s available in your community. Attend transition and resource fairs, meet with employment service providers to learn what they have to offer, and speak with others who have gone through the process and can recommend options so you have the information you need to choose the best match for you. Note to parents: Your child may need your help to learn what’s out there and make sense of it. Keep in mind that it is important that they understand their choices and the ramifications of those choices just as much as you do. This is their life – have them involved in the process 100 percent.
- Learn and practice being independent. This is important to think about early. If your caregiver is doing all the work for you, what’s going to happen when you get to a job and your caregiver is not there? How will you manage on your own if your caregiver speaks on your behalf, coordinates everything within your schedule, and virtually does it all for you? Learn how to navigate your life more independently now, so that when it comes time to find and work at a job, you feel more ready. That is not to say there won’t be supports on a job — a job coach and a supportive employment team can be put in place to help you through, but the overall goal is for you to be independent on a job.Seek any chance to learn, practice, and develop skills that will lead you to self-sufficiency. This can include making your own doctor’s appointments, leading your individualized education program (IEP) and employment support meetings, opening a bank account, responding to your emails, etc. The more you can do on your own now, the more equipped you will be for adulthood and employment. Note to parents: Let your child speak for themselves if they can. It’s easier said than done, because it’s natural that you want to protect your child and give them the world, but it will benefit them, and you, if they learn how do things for themselves early on. Allow them these opportunities.
- Volunteer to learn soft skills. Volunteering somewhere a few hours a week while you’re in middle and high school will give you an opportunity to learn some of the fundamental skills you’ll need for a job in the future. Not only can you learn technical skills (different job tasks and duties), but you can also learn soft skills including:
- Mastering the use of a schedule and the responsibility of being where you need to be when you need to be there
- Understanding the importance of a work ethic—the expectation that you will work hard and give the job your best effort
- Polishing your communication skills, from learning to explain problems you may run into to asking for time off when you need it.
Furthermore, volunteering can help you figure out what you want to do (or not do) in a future job, and you can put it on your resume. You might make a few new friends too. Note to parents: Take a step back a bit and begin to let your child figure out this new environment on their own. Depending on the age and abilities of your child, decide if they can navigate this new environment entirely on their own or if they may need some support from you. For example, facilitate communication with a supervisor or show them how to check a schedule, but don’t do it for them. A job coach may also be helpful as an expert supporter and cheerleader.
- Recognize your strengths. You have so much to offer employers and your community, you just have to believe in yourself. Autism does not define you. Understand your gifts, talents, and skills as well as your challenges, and share them with your employment team so they can best support you. Getting a self-assessment and talking with members of your support team to help identify your strengths are two good ways to start. Note to parents: Continue to provide positive encouragement and highlight their successes. The I’m Determined project, from the Virginia Department of Education, put out a toolbox of resources for parents to help build their children’s self-determination skills.
- Growing up and becoming independent isn’t easy. There’s a lot to learn and it’s never a seamless process for anyone. However, by learning as much as you can now about what is to come, you have every opportunity to become an independent, successful adult. The keys are thinking ahead, learning independence early, and being confident in yourself. If you can do those things, you may find your inevitable jump off of the cliff lands you in a great new place called adulthood.
Theresa Piccolo is the autism services program coordinator for ServiceSource, a disability resource nonprofit with regional offices and programs located in 10 states and the District of Columbia, serving more than 23,000 individuals with disabilities annually through a range of innovative and valued support services. Her programs throughout Northern Virginia provide individualized, comprehensive, one-on-one employment supports to individuals with autism spectrum disorder who are interested in obtaining and maintaining employment, volunteer work, or internships in the community. She also facilitates soft skills groups, travel training, and connects individuals with valuable community resources.