I was honored to be one of 4 speakers at Autism Awareness Day on April 15, 2014 at the Massachusetts State House. Here is my message.
I’ve been shouting to the rooftops about how my husband and I successfully transitioned our son, after nearly a year in a psychiatric hospital and 5 years in an institutionalized residential program to living in his own house with supports, 2 years before 22.
My goal has been to engage the community in a dialogue about the importance of collaboration and early planning with regard to preparing teens with autism for adulthood. Preparedness, in all areas of social, emotional and educational skills, is tantamount to success. Unfortunately, we are falling short of preparing our young men and women appropriately, and we are seeing them arrive at adulthood, either with or without State and Federal supports, and fail in their pursuits to a lead a dignified life. Not because they can’t, because they are not prepared. They have been educated according to the law, they’ve taken MCAS, they’ve gotten their therapies, they’ve had their accommodations or IEPs. They have not been given the tools to manage themselves as any of us are expected to when we become adults.
The theme of this year’s Awareness Day is “employment.” So how does preparedness fit into this? Any of us could have been straight A students, and indeed, some individuals with autism do very well academically. But think about the interpersonal and professional skills that are necessary to employment. Things like time management, working as a member of a team, communicating with people in authority, personal appearance, conflict management, coping strategies that are appropriate to an adult environment – these are things that individuals with autism struggle with, they are not necessarily things that feel natural to them. But because our society requires these skills to be a successful and competitive employee, everyone must have them.
Lack of these skills become barriers to employment. My son is too severely impacted by his level of autism to work in a mainstreamed job, so he is supported in a specialized employment program. The transition was traumatic for him and he entered the program with no adaptive skills whatsoever.
Yet he has gained more skills in the last year and a half since leaving his former placement, than he ever did in the previous 5 years. But had we focused on some of those skills I talked about, years before he transitioned, I am certain he could have made even more gains and the transition could have been far, far less difficult.
As always, it will take a village to make this vision of improving employment for individuals with autism a true success. That village has to include educators who understand and commit to partnering with this vision, by doing their part to prepare the students who are going to make up the workforce we are all working so hard for.
Last week I spoke to legislators in Worcester, and I asked them to participate in furthering the dialogue around improving transition planning. I gave them 3 benchmarks:
1. Create a blueprint that will ensure that every student gets to voice their vision and that those visions are the basis for early planning and preparation.
2. Provide the resources for educators to identify and prepare skills training that looks at academics as well as critical living skills according to their maximum potential.
3. Establish practices that promote collaboration and early planning as the keys to successful futures.
That’s the message I bring as part of today’s discussion, and I encourage everyone to go and tell your legislators not only do our loved ones need and deserve more opportunities for employment, but we also need to make preparedness a part of the dialogue, and include the role of educators in critical skill building prior to graduation.