The Autism Speaks website (2012) indicates that 1 in 110 children are diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), with notably higher incidents in males (1 in 70). This 600% increase in the past twenty years is only partly accounted for with improved diagnostic measures. Generally, children with autistic disorders have difficulties with social skills, executive functioning and communication. Although there is no cure, adaptations can be made with accommodations and emotional support which can increase likelihood for success at school. A critical barrier to servicing these students is limited awareness among clinicians and educators (Dipeolu, Storlie, & Johnson, in press). So how can school counselors assist students as they plan for future training, education, and career planning?
Get to know the individual student. Become familiar with the differences in Autism Spectrum Disorders. Each student may present different strengths and unique challenges. Checklists and assessments may be helpful when working with parents to determine needs and areas of special interest. Use some of the helpful websites, identified at the end of the article, to can enhance your knowledge about working with students with ASD.
Work as a team. With an individualized plan of instruction, each team member needs to contribute to the career transition plan. The student, parents, special education educators, school psychologist, nurse and counselor can each solicit the assistance from the vocational rehabilitation center in the community and vice versa. For instance parents often know the student's strengths and focused interests, and these should be considered in all stages of planning.
Start early and check in regularly. Team meetings should be planned well in advance of graduation; often as early as middle school. Career assessments, exploration, job shadow experiences, and planning for classes are essential for the student. Regular check-ins will provide insight and opportunities to promote self-advocacy and self-determination. Designated tasks and goals for ASD students to work on between check ins will further assist in a proactive approach.
Simplify the agenda. It can be overwhelming for the student to have too many options and to-do lists. Determine what is essential for success and make that a priority. Color-coded calendars, planners, vision boards, or check lists are effective with this population. If the team can layout the “big picture” and then divide up the steps into manageable expectations, more can be accomplished throughout the semester.
Reduce fear and frustration. Seek specific hands-on options that are designed to address deficits in social, emotional and organization skills. Students with ASD may do well in small group sessions together and often refer to themselves affectionately as “Aspies”. Get the group together to work on “what if…” scenarios designed by the counselor. “What if I am in this situation? How would I respond?” By discussing choices and options, “Aspies” may reinforce social skills, independent living skills, and expectations. “Would have…, could have…, should have…” is an activity that group members can role play with family, work and social situations. Counselors can emphasize expectations on future college campuses, on the job or in relationships. Reducing fear and frustration in new situations can begin in small group sessions.
Build on personal strengths and interests. Those with ASD may turn their childhood fascination into a career or professions (Rowland & Fleming, 2011). Consider careers that may offer solitude and high concentration if that is a strength for the individual student. Many have the unique ability to focus, stay diligent, and absorb specialized information (Beckwith, 2011). The ability to study a specific topic or repetitive pattern, with minimal interaction with others, may suit some with ASD. Career planning that includes personal strengths and interests, provide avenues in which students can develop self-advocacy, self-determination and persistence– all critical to a successful college experience.
Network with community agencies. The National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth (NCWD-Youth) suggests that individuals with disabilities may qualify for services and additional transitional support that includes career advising, vocational rehabilitation, and mental health counseling under the reauthorized Workforce Investment Act of 1998 (Chappel & Somers, 2010). Find agencies in your community that also can support students who are transitioning to post-secondary training and college campuses.
Prepare to transition from family dependence to independence. In public schools, laws govern the roles and responsibilities for the provision of services to students with ASD. In these settings, parents tend to be the primary advocate to initiate services for students. However, once a student enters college, these roles and responsibilities are transitioned over to the adult students. Families may assume that college professionals will provide the training needed for students to succeed in college, yet the student may have to disclose the disability to further continue services (Hendricks, & Wehman, 2009). Students will have to practice self-advocacy and may need to decide to share their grades, attendance, or disciplinary actions with parents, as privacy laws now protect the adult student. Job interviews, promotions or dismissal procedures may also not be available for parental input for the young adult worker. As a part of career transition services, school counselors may wish to inform students with ASD and their families about the post-secondary environment and the different laws that govern higher education.
In summary, there is much that can be done to help students diagnosed with an ASD. School counselors are crucial in removing barriers and opening doors to additional possibilities. Using a strengths based approach, school counselors can use academic strategies, personal-social skills and career planning to improve the chances for advanced training, higher education and gainful employment for all students, especially those with ASD.
Autism Speaks website. (2012). Retrieved from: http://www.autismspeaks.org/
Beckwith. (2011). Career Choices and Asperger’s Syndrome. Retrieved October 17, 2011 from: www.ehow.com/about_6457738_career-choices-asperger_syndrome.html
Chappel, S. L., & Somers, B. C. (2010). Employing persons with autism spectrum disorders: A collaborative effort. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation 32, 117-124. DOI:10.3233/JVR 2010-0501
Dipeolu, A., Storlie, C., & Johnson, C. (in press). Transition to college and students with highfunctioning autism spectrum disorder: Strategy considerations for school counselors. Journal of School Counseling.
Hendricks, D.R., & Wehman, P. (2009). Transition from school to adulthood for youth with autism spectrum disorders: Reviews and recommendations. Focus on Autism and Developmental Disabilities, 24 (2), 77-88.
Roland, K.D., and Fleming, D.U. ( June, 2011). Achievement Advocacy for Students with Asperger’s Disorder. American School Counselor Association annual conference, Seattle, WA. .
Abiola Dipeolu, Ph.D., LP, is an Assistant Professor, Department of Counseling, School, & Education Psychology, University at Buffalo in Buffalo, New York. Her research interests include career development of people with disabilities, career interventions for individuals with ADHD and LD, and post-school transition issues. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cassandra A. Storlie is an Assistant Professor at Kent State University. Her research interests include social justice and collaboration efforts among counseling professionals to assist in healthy career development of marginalized populations. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Carol Johnson, Ph.D. is currently an Associate Professor teaching in the School Counseling program at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. Dr. Johnson is a former teacher and school counselor. Contact Carol at firstname.lastname@example.org