School is often seen as a nightmare for ASD kids and their parents, for good reason. There are few environments that are less conducive to success for an autistic child. However, there is hope. As parents it is easy to worry too much and fret over every small decision and classroom intervention that you have to make in regards to your autistic child. This process, meetings, therapies, etc. can be agonizing for both parent and child. It may not be easy, but try to relax. I never received any speech therapy, occupational therapy, accommodation, or adaptation and I turned out okay. Can these therapies and interventions be beneficial? Yes, in some cases. But please remember no matter how many therapies and interventions you put in place, your child can only develop as fast as their brain does. If all of these appointments increase stress levels for all involved, the benefits will be minimal. Your job as the parent is to help your child be as happy as they can possibly be through their educational journey. Try not limit your vision of your child's academic career. Your ASD child is capable of incredible things! There are multiple paths and options for them to choose from, if they decide to pursue further education as an adult. Your job is to guide your ASD child down the path that fits them best, so they can be successful.
1. Let them pursue their passions/obsessions. There appear to be several "subtypes" of autistic academic talents: numbers, drawing, words, and music. There are many subject areas, college majors and career paths that line up with each ASD subtype. Immerse your child in the corresponding subject areas, and you will see that child flourish. Let them enjoy their obsessions!
2. Draw on their natural academic strengths. Your child most likely has above average intelligence in one or more academic areas. A good memory is also a common strength among autistic people. Like their "typical" peers, your ASD child also has a preferred learning style. Some students learn best from reading, some from listening, and for others only a hands-on approach will do. These preferences usually correspond with your child's academic strength. No matter what the subject area or specific learning difficulty, the most important factor is to identify your child's preferred learning style and tailor your learning aids around that. This allows the child to reach their maximum potential and makes learning fun.
3. Take academic weaknesses into account. Proficiency in one area does not indicate a similar proficiency in the other areas. In fact, an average to below average ability in the other subject areas would be more likely. This is one reason why educating ASD students is so difficult. If your child dislikes a certain subject area, you will need to provide some sort of positive reinforcement to ensure good results. The child can't be relied on to find enough "internal motivation" to do a difficult assignment. A responsible trusted adult will have to provide the supervision and motivation for the child. This need for an outside source of motivation continues into adulthood. It doesn't go away. What you can hope for as a parent of a college-bound ASD child is that your child has developed some strategies of their own. My strategy was to avoid classes I know I wouldn't like when possible, reward myself with downtime or doing fun things after getting through a difficult or boring class or assignment. It helped that I had only one major role or identity (student) throughout my academic career, since over time, I have learned that adding additional roles (spouse, parent, employee) has dramatically changed my ability to function successfully and utilize my coping strategies effectively.
4. Take their sensory needs into account. When considering ways to help autistic children with their academics, you will have to remember the importance of sensory sensitivity. Sensory difficulties are strong enough to derail a college major or other educational choice. For example, do you have a budding paleontologist in your home who loves dinos but hates to get his hands dirty? A Ph.D in paleontology may not be the right path for your child, but a career as a museum curator or tour guide is much more possible, and more importantly, a better chance at success and satisfaction at work. Be sure to incorporate as many senses as possible when teaching something new to a child. I have noticed that I can grasp new concepts much more easily when there is hands-on participation or some other physical component involved in the instruction. Integrating sensory input is a major struggle for ASD people, so give your child the best chance of learning and retaining new information by presenting it in a way that gets their attention through multiple sensory inputs.
I was never diagnosed with ASD until after I graduated with a Master's degree and became a licensed professional in my career field. I was lucky that my academic strengths were reading and memorizing facts. These strengths were very useful in the classroom. They did not make up for my weaknesses though. My fine motor skills are still delayed. It is very difficult to read my writing and I avoid cutting at all costs. I struggle with abstract math and numbers in general. In regards to sensory input, I have my sensory preferences like any other ASD person. I remember one class in college that hit all of my academic weaknesses. It was a geology class (facts, but lots of numbers too) that was held at 8:30 AM (too early for me) in a small, full classroom with no windows (too tight of a space for me) and the professor didn't write anything, He just lectured. (Do you want to guess my least effective learning style?) Needless to say, I got a D in the class. I also got a D+ in a Humanities class because I couldn't complete the final project (an art project done in an Italian Renaissance style). I didn't have the artistic ability, creativity or motivation to do it, or write a long paper just before finals (the alternative to the art project).
My two sons were diagnosed with ASD before I was and when they were diagnosed, I decided that my main focus as a parent is for them to be happy. I believe that it is possible for ASD children like mine to live happily and pursue the academic and professional training that "real life" demands in order to be a productive member of society. The trick is to make the world work for the kids, rather than try to make them fit into whatever mold the world thinks they should fit. This is not only possible, but very likely to be accomplished if you develop an academic and career plan designed around your child's skills, interests, and talents. There is a world of opportunity for people with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Your job is to help your child find the opportunity that fits best.
If you'd like to read more posts about autism written by Jason, enjoy the following below!
About the Author:
Jason has a master's degree in Marriage and Family Counseling. He has spent the last eight years working as a therapist to adults and children, in a private and group counseling sessions, and in residential facilities. At home, Jason has four plus years experience as a foster parent with his wife, caring for children ages newborn to eighteen years of age with multiple special needs. He is also a parent to four special needs children, two biological, and two adopted, with diagnoses of autism, ADHD, RAD, PTSD, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome of Effect, anxieties, and sleep disorders. Within the last year, Jason was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD and Anxiety Disorder NOS.