The transition to adulthood is challenging for many young people, but it’s especially so for people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In addition to the responsibilities associated with leaving school, finding employment, and living independently, youth with ASD have to navigate the changes in the services and support they’ve been receiving.1
Young people with ASD may also experience changes in their symptoms and health conditions as they get older. All of these issues combined can make it difficult for individuals with ASD to find ways to participate in work and school after they leave high school. Evidence-based practices can help young people effectively handle this transition so they can thrive in this new stage of their lives.1
This article will cover the unique needs of people with ASD as they make the transition from childhood to adulthood.
Key characteristics of autism spectrum disorder
People with ASD can have a range of characteristics caused by differences in how their brains function. They may find communicating and participating in social interactions or finding themselves in new situations, challenging.2 Many people with autism also have remarkable strengths and abilities, such as the ability to learn quickly and think logically. They often have other traits that employers value, including dependability, punctuality, and honesty.3 An effective transition plan will take advantage of an individual’s strengths and provide support to help them overcome their difficulties.
Challenges faced by transition-age individuals with ASD
In the United States, students with a disability such as ASD are guaranteed to receive services until they either graduate from high school or turn 21. One of the biggest obstacles transition-age youth with ASD face is that adult disability services are based on funding. So while an adult may be eligible for services such as help with housing, job training, or supported employment, they may not be able to receive them.1
In addition, the school system is responsible for securing services for children. Adults with ASD have to advocate for themselves and often have to apply for services on their own. This steep drop in the availability of services is called the “service cliff.” A lack of support can result in poor outcomes by restricting where people with ASD can live and the types of work they can do.4
However, parents and teachers can take proactive measures to help young people successfully transition to adulthood. Effective transition plans center around helping each individual student use the talents and resources they have to work toward their individual life goals.5
Education and vocational planning
The Centers for Disease Control list high unemployment and underemployment rates as a challenge for teens and adults with ASD, even though they often have exceptional skills and abilities.6 Jobs allow people with autism to contribute their unique talents to society, develop additional skills, and become financially independent. Educational and job support programs can help individuals with ASD overcome obstacles in the working environment to further these goals.7
Developing life skills and independence
Most young adults with ASD continue to live with family members or relatives.6 However, many can live independently if they’re well-prepared. Even if they continue living with their family, developing life skills will benefit young adults with ASD.
Ideally, children with ASD should begin learning life skills at very young ages. Even preschoolers can participate in household chores and learn to start cleaning up after themselves. Young adults with strong daily living skills are more independent in their living and working environments.1
Parents and schools can begin targeted training in specific life skills as students get older by teaching them essentials such as how to shop for and prepare food, clean and maintain their living spaces, manage money, coordinate transportation, and manage their mental and physical health. They can also work to educate the students with ASD on the importance of physical activity and regular hygiene practices, including how to maintain a hygiene routine on their own.8
Social skills and peer relationships
Social skills are important in personal and professional relationships. Unfortunately, it’s one area where many people with ASD struggle. Almost 40% of young people with autism “spend little or no time with friends.”6
Strong social connections are important for everyone’s health and well-being. Many individuals with ASD want close friendships and romantic relationships as much as anyone else does. They may have obstacles that can interfere with developing social relationships, such as a lack of interest in general topics, difficulties with personal boundaries and social-emotional reciprocity, and an approach to nonverbal communication and social cues that may cause them to be misunderstood.9
Fortunately, direct instruction in social skills can help adolescents with ASD learn to handle social situations and make and keep friends. Three phases need to be mastered for people with ASD to become proficient in social skills:10
- Learning the skill, such as memorizing a list of ways to start a conversation
- Practicing the skill, such as role-playing joining in a conversation
- Using the skill, such as participating in an unscripted conversation with classmates or coworkers
College and job training programs
In high school, students with ASD have Individual Education Plans (IEPs) in place to help them succeed. IEPs don’t apply in college. While students with disabilities can request accommodations, the school only has to provide “reasonable” ones, and students have to advocate for themselves much more than in high school. Parents and teachers can help by teaching students the skills they’ll need early and encouraging them to think about their interests in terms of employment.1
For students looking for vocational support, job training programs provide a structured environment designed to meet the needs of individuals with ASD. They provide training in job-specific skills and general workplace skills.7
Supported employment programs
People with ASD can often benefit from guidance, coaching, and support when they start working. Supportive employment programs provide personalized help with workplace issues, such as job expectations and skills. These programs match people with ASD with autism-friendly companies and give them the support they need to excel in their jobs. They also provide education and support for companies working to create inclusive environments.7
Competitive integrated employment (CIE)
With CIE, people with disabilities are paid the same rates as people without disabilities, provided they’re performing the same job and have similar levels of skill and experience. The job must pay minimum wage or above and must allow the person with disabilities to interact with people without disabilities. Finally, employees with disabilities must have access to the same opportunities for career advancement as employees without disabilities.11
Addressing mental health in transition-age youth with autism spectrum disorder
As transition-age youth with autism spectrum disorder navigate the challenges of adulthood, it is crucial to pay attention to their mental health. The unique needs of individuals with ASD extend beyond the tangible aspects of life and encompass their emotional well-being. Research indicates that mental health plays a significant role in the successful transition of young adults with ASD.12
The transition period can be overwhelming, triggering changes in symptoms and health conditions. Recognizing and addressing mental health concerns during this phase is vital. Providing mental health services tailored to the specific needs of youth with ASD can contribute to a smoother transition. Access to mental health resources becomes paramount to ensure comprehensive support for individuals facing both developmental and mental health challenges.
Supporting youth with ASD in mental health service utilization
Understanding the nuances of mental health service use is essential for the effective support of transition-age youth with ASD.
Many individuals with ASD may face barriers in expressing their emotional well-being or seeking help due to challenges in communication and social interactions.13 Educating both caregivers and individuals with ASD about available mental health services and encouraging open conversations about mental health can bridge this gap.
In addition to formal mental health services, incorporating strategies that enhance social and emotional skills can empower youth with ASD to navigate their mental well-being more effectively. Acknowledging the importance of psychiatric services tailored to their unique needs is crucial for promoting overall mental health and resilience in this population.
Promoting a holistic approach to health care transition
The journey from adolescence to adulthood for individuals with ASD involves not only mental health considerations but also a transition in health care. A holistic approach to health care transition services ensures that both physical and mental health aspects are addressed comprehensively. This involves collaboration between healthcare providers, caregivers, and individuals with ASD to facilitate a seamless transition into the adult health care system.
Developing a personalized transition plan that includes considerations for both mental and physical health can significantly impact the well-being of youth with ASD. By integrating health care transition services into the overall plan, individuals can access the necessary support to manage their health effectively as they enter adulthood.
ASD and the importance of mental health education
Empowering youth with ASD involves not only addressing their immediate needs but also preparing them for long-term success. An integral aspect of this preparation is imparting knowledge about mental health service utilization and the importance of maintaining mental well-being.
Education on mental health service use can include guidance on identifying signs of distress, seeking help, and building coping mechanisms. As part of transition planning, educators and caregivers can collaborate to ensure that mental health education is integrated into the curriculum, providing essential skills that contribute to the overall success of youth with ASD as they transition into adulthood.
In conclusion, recognizing and addressing the unique mental health needs of transition-age youth with ASD is a crucial component of comprehensive support.
By incorporating mental health education and mental health services into transition plans, more people can contribute to the well-being and success of individuals with ASD as they navigate the challenges of adulthood.
Make a difference in students’ lives with a graduate degree in special education
People with ASD have unique gifts to offer the people in their lives and communities. However, they may need help learning to navigate the obstacles that can interfere with their meaningful contributions.
Graduate programs like the online master’s in special education from the University of Kansas School of Education and Human Sciences prepare educational professionals to set these students up to succeed.
Learn how you can have a positive impact on the lives of students with ASD with KU’s program. You’ll learn evidence-based practices from leaders in the field, as well as gain the skills and knowledge you need to become a leader in your school and community.
Contact a KU admissions outreach advisor today to learn more.
- Retrieved on January 11, 2023, from sparkforautism.org/discover_article/coming-of-age-autism-and-the-transition-to-adulthood/
- Retrieved on January 11, 2023, from cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/signs.html
- Retrieved on January 11, 2023, from altogetherautism.org.nz/strengths-and-abilities-in-autism/
- Retrieved on January 11, 2023, from apa.org/monitor/2023/11/adults-autism-spectrum
- Retrieved on January 11, 2023, from tacanow.org/family-resources/iep-transition-planning/
- Retrieved on January 11, 2023, from cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/autism-spectrum-disorder-in-teenagers-adults.html
- Retrieved on January 11, 2023, from goldenstepsaba.com/resources/vocational-opportunities-for-autism
- Retrieved on January 11, 2023, from transitionsusa.org/blog-autism-young-adult-independent-living-skills/
- Retrieved on January 11, 2023, from n2y.com/blog/teaching-social-skills-autism-part-one/
- Retrieved on January 11, 2023, from n2y.com/blog/teaching-social-skills-autism-part-two/
- Retrieved on January 11, 2023, from dol.gov/agencies/odep/program-areas/cie
- Retrieved on January 11, 2023, from ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7704781/
- Retrieved on January 11, 2023, from nidcd.nih.gov/health/autism-spectrum-disorder-communication-problems-children