Dan Coulter, November 2006
What's the most important skill a high school
student with Asperger Syndrome or autism can learn before he or
Run a list of candidate skills through your head. It's a good
Was self-advocacy on your short list? I think I can make a good
case that it should be.
Whether your student is bound for a job or for college after
graduation, he's almost certainly entering a much less protected
environment. Many students on the autism spectrum are used to
having a lot of things done for them. A student who hasn't
learned to speak up for herself in high school isn't going to
magically acquire the ability when handed a high school diploma.
If your son gets a job, will he ask the right questions if his
boss gives him a task he doesn't understand?
If your daughter goes to college, how will she react if she
doesn't catch the details of an assignment?
For many people on the spectrum, it's especially hard to speak
up and ask for directions or for help. Sometimes that's because
they don't want to call attention to themselves -- or look
different. And many kids on the spectrum would be at a loss to
explain their challenges and what accommodations they need to
perform well in a job or in a college class.
At a recent admissions seminar at High Point University near my
home, a counselor explained a common reason that students with
disabilities appeared before the academic review board after
receiving poor grades. It was almost always the case that the
students either hadn't asked for accommodations, or hadn't used
the accommodations that they had been granted.
I've heard a number of accounts where someone on the autism
spectrum lost a job because of problems that started with
miscommunication with a supervisor.
Knowing this, you can help your kids avoid these pitfalls. Your
son or daughter doesn't have to disclose his or her condition to
everyone, but when they need and want to, can they -- and will
they? By the way, it's common for parents to assume that a child
on the spectrum knows more about his condition than he actually
So, find out what your student knows. Sit down with your son or
daughter and talk about the importance of self-advocacy. Ask
them what they know about their condition and about any
accommodations they're receiving at school. Use what you
discover to fill in any gaps in their knowledge, then plan a
program of activities that will continuously build their ability
to explain their condition without embarrassment and describe
what they need in a particular situation. Sometimes, what they
need may turn out only to be detailed instructions on how an
assignment or job needs to be done.
Show them the benefits of learning self-advocacy by tying their
progress to privileges. The more situations they show you they
can handle, the more independence you give them.
If your child has an Individualized Education Program at his
school, make sure he knows what's in it. Discuss the plan with
him before school IEP meetings and help him take an active part
in the meetings. Consider making one of your child's IEP goals
that he develops the ability to explain his condition and
describe his needed accommodations to an employer or instructor.
If you need help with your IEP, there's an excellent article
titled, "Writing Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for
Success" by Barbara D. Bateman on the Wrightslaw website at
When your child has doctor appointments, get her used to talking
to the doctor directly. You may want to explain to the doctor
ahead of time, or at the beginning of the visit, that you're
preparing your student to manage her own medical care, and that
you'll be mainly an observer in the examining room.
It's also important to develop your child's ability to explain
what he needs or wants when no mention of his condition is
required. In stores, in restaurants, at events, etc., take every
opportunity to have your student take the lead in interacting
with people. Explain what he'll need to do in detail beforehand.
You can stand by in case you're needed, but don't be too quick
to step in and take over when there's a problem. You can think
of yourself as a lifeguard. You don't want to let your charges
drown, but everyone swallows a little water while learning to
Recently, I interviewed Dorothy Wells, Assistant Director of
Disability Support Services at the University of North Carolina
at Pembroke. I asked her the most important things a high school
student with Asperger Syndrome or autism should do to prepare
for college. She said, "It's simple, start going to your IEP
meetings and get comfortable talking to people about your
You can think of self advocacy as a crucial "enabling skill"
that allows your son or daughter to apply the other skills
they've learned to succeed in class, in a career and in life.
Self-advocacy may not be the most important skill on your list
of things to teach your high school student. But it may be the
most important skill that's not on your list -- and should be.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dan Coulter is the writer/producer of the
videos, "Asperger Syndrome: Transition to College and Work" and
"Asperger Syndrome: Transition to Work." You can read more of
his articles at:
Copyright 2006 Dan Coulter All Rights Reserved. Used by
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