Often when I discuss services with educational teams, I hear someone say "She does not need specialized instruction in this area. She has the skills, she is just not using them." This could happen when talking about any skill: academic, social, executive functioning, the list goes on.
What I have a problem with in this sentence is the word "just." This is not "just" something insignificant and accidental. This is a major challenge in autism. I would even say that it is one of the central challenges in autism. Having a skill and using it every time it is needed are not the same thing. And for an autistic person, experiencing this difference daily is very trying.
Someone on my Instagram account made he following enlightening comment, "I will say that it has a lot to do with the environment in which we are expected to perform the task. Do we feel safe? Is it too noisy? Is the lighting acceptable? What's that smell? Is it going to go away or am I going to have to deal with it the whole time? Etc., etc., etc. Then there is the issue of the actual task and the innumerable variables associated with it that must be considered and questioned and sorted out. It's like expecting a 747 to power up and take off in two seconds. Not gonna happen." The same person likened doing something specific on a short notice to an Olympic gymnast being asked to perform a complex routine at a drop of a hat, without any preparation or warm up.
Once you understand this challenge and how it comes to be, you are one step closer to understanding autism.
Many factors contribute to not being able to use a skill that one has in his or her toolbox. Each one of those factors needs to and can be accommodated and addressed. Some of the ways to do this are listed below. Read on.
Accommodations and interventions that can address this in schools for children on IEPs and 504s
Accommodations can include
- modifying sensory aspects of environment to suit the child
- showing knowledge in a different way
- not being called on in class without a prior warning
- asking if a child is ready for an activity or a task
- giving the child a choice when to demonstrate a skill
- sensory diet
- accommodations for anxiety
- home-school communication to help parents support generalization to home and community
- social facilitation to learn reading cues in the environment (situational awareness)
Specialized instruction can include:
-Teaching situational awareness -- the concepts and skills related to "reading the room" or "reading the situation" to make decisions on what skills to use at what time
- Self-awareness skills (recognizing own emotions and arousal states)
- Self-regulation skills (managing own emotions and arousal states). This includes using sensory equipment.
- Coping skills to manage anxiety
- Functional communication (communicating around basic needs)
- Self-advocacy (communicating preferences, and challenges, requesting help, accommodations, stating discomfort and distress, etc.)
- IEP goals and objectives written for generalization
- Home-based parent training to promote generalization of skills to home and community
- Interventions in a natural environment, by several professionals using varied language in a variety of situations
Age of transition and adulthood
Even with the best interventions, this will likely remain a challenge into adolescence and adulthood. Transition planning services, post-graduate education, and vocational training programs need to be planned and chosen to accommodate this.
A profession that requires on-the-spot decisions and quick thinking abilities is not a good fit for a person who requires time to process information and who needs to be able to work during times that feel most productive. "Fast-paced" environment will not be an environment of choice. A good choice would be an employer that allows flexible workday, work from home at least part of the time, group communication in writing, and other accommodations as needed.
Hopefully, family and friends can support an autistic adult in making lifestyle choices with this issue in mind. It is important to emphasize that this is a part of self-care and managing own needs. It is perfectly OK to organize your life to make it a fit for who you are. It is not a reflection on your ability, worth or potential.
Self-advocacy skills need to be addressed during the time of transition and life-long as well. They will be crucial for an autistic person's success and well-being as an adult. Being able to understand and communicate one own's needs both in professional and personal situations are vital skills. Requesting and negotiating help and accommodations, both formal and informal, is also very important. This could be as simple as saying, "It is easier for me to understand instructions when they are written," or "Let me take a bit of time to think this through," or "Loud spaces are difficult for me to manage, and the office can be a bit on a loud side. I will be wearing noise-canceling earphones, so if you speak to me while I am working, please get my attention by doing X and I will take them off."