Sunday, January 29, 2012

High school is over, what's next if you have autism?

Jimmy self-portrait: colored pencil,
pen and pastel on paper 2011
Graduate school, college, community college, interesting and engaging career opportunities or emptying garbage cans and shredding paper: normally developing high school student versa high school student with autism. Does there seem or feel like there is a big gap for opportunities and the way you are thought of if you have autism? It should because there is. 

I attended a college counseling program for my fourth child who is a high school junior last Wednesday night.  The day before, I met with our two school districts who manage Jimmy's program to review his current status and discuss his transition program as he will graduate in June.  I was struck by the stark difference in these two meetings and it caused me to think. 

Jimmy's images on 2009 William Gordon Estate Bottled Cabernet Sauvignon
These six bottles will be auctioned at 2012 WineFest on May 12th, 2012
 While we are creating a unique plan for Jimmy which is being developed around his love of art and his abilities as an artist, it is apparent that most families do not experience what we have for Jimmy.  Clearly, our  experience should be shared by more families; not just mine or a handful of others.  I would challenge educators and communities to think creatively when building plans for kids with autism just like we do for kids that are normally developing.  Many families of normally developing kids, travel the country in search of the right college and scholarships as they work to create a positive environment for their child.  Why does the college search feel so positive, full of potential and transition planning a dead end full of settling and failure?  

Why does the experience and opportunity have to be so different. Brian and I want the same things for both of our boys yet the thought process and experiences are so different.  I think that high school counseling and transition should be thought of in a more similar light.

College and career counseling have a positive connotation. The college bound child will move onto in school and continue his/her learning surly moving onto to a career or additional schooling that will bring them happiness and success.  The word transition, which is commonly used to define the program for those with special needs moving on past high school, implies difficulty and handicap.  Do people with autism stop learning when they graduate from high school?  Are kids with autism no longer able to learn and grow when they leave high school? Is there an inherent thought process that kids with autism stop learning at some point?  Reminds me of the conversation that I had with a psychologist who told me learning basically stops for kids with autism by the age of six. Truly, time to change minds. 

MJ with One-eyed Toad
Portrait of Jimmy's 4year old cousin
MJ with the one-eyed toad she found.
Acrylic paint on canvas, 2011
Over the years in discussions with professionals that have worked with Jimmy, so much of the dialogue revolves around his presumed and sometimes real difficulty in making transition from one activity to another.  All the text books tell us that kid with autism don't like change and they can't move from one thing to the next.  Maybe, that school of thought isn't quite right. We found that Jimmy actually likes change and his behavior is better when  in a new environment.  He doesn't  get stuck.  When we prepare Jimmy for something new, he adapts well. If we haven't prepare him for what to expect, the situation may not meet our expectations.  The challenge is to see things as he might….wear the blinders that he has to wear…..get into his shoes… how might he view the situation.  I don't think that transition issues have as much to do with a new situation/environment as it does with the preparation. 

In  conversations with families about their transition programs, I rarely hear about a program that families are excited about. I ask,  will this program allow the child to excel in an area that will bring them happiness and success.  Most conversation sounds like settling as there are few opportunities that are available. Opportunities for those with special needs is often an afterthought…what is left at the bottom of the barrel.  Parents are often dependent on the funding that is available through the state and school districts…there are no scholarship opportunities. Family resources have been tapped for many years - paying out of pocket for uncovered therapies for their children.  Families are beat down and exhausted.  Let's develop innovative idea that include kids in the spectrum?

Girl from Italy
 Pen and oil pastel on paper
The question might be who really has trouble with change and transition: kids with autism or the rest of us  who  have predisposed ideas of what people with autism are really capable of? Let's think of these kids as we did on the day they were born: a beautiful human being full of potential.
So, why do we use the word transition to define the opportunities that might be available to kids with autism. I would suggest a change in terminology and a change in how we think about post high school opportunities for people with autism.  What about environments where kids with autism thrive.  How about the "potential" program rather than the "transition" program?

Rally up you entrepreneurs,  there is a huge workforce on the horizon! We need ideas that will invigorate families and their kids by providing opportunities that foster growth, purpose and happiness.  Let's start the conversation and change the expectations.  My parents taught me as a young kid: if you expect poor performance, you will get poor performance.  If you expect great things, you will strive to attain great things.

Time to change minds and what is next for kids with autism.  

Pen, colored pencil, chalk and oil
pastel on paper, 2011
Who is doing this in Minnesota now?

Erik's Ranch and Retreats 

Minnesota Life College  

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