Updated: March, 2022
© 2022 Think Social Publishing, Inc.
Those with social learning differences (autism, ADHD, NVLD, neurodivergent, etc.) are often described by their parents and teachers as having struggles with various aspects of their education including, but not limited to, establishing peer-based social relationships, completing academic assignments, organizing materials, and mental health. This means we all need to think outside the box to develop lessons/opportunities for learning explicitly what neurotypical students learn implicitly (e.g., social thinking and related social skills, executive function skills, inferencing and synthesizing information, etc.).
We have seen many students described as super "bright" kids who have diagnoses, such as Asperger's, autism levels 1 and 2, or ADHD, or with no diagnosis march off to college programs only to fall apart and drop out. Stewing in anxiety and depression, several don't take steps to progress in their learning and independence. Instead, they slip into dysfunction with few safety nets to catch them.
We’ve learned so much from years of working with teens who are transitioning to adulthood and adults who are trying to increase their social/executive functioning abilities to maintain employment or make friends. Here are some ideas that might be helpful:
Many with social learning differences need to work at developing motivation to help themselves, while in the K-12 school years and certainly into their adult years. By accident, the IEP process often makes it appear that it is a teacher/parent problem if a student is unable to learn a set of skills. Why? We expect adults to adapt a curriculum to meet a student's learning abilities, but this is far from the "real world" of what awaits our students once they step a foot outside of high school and into college or work environments. To truly help means to guide individuals to find the motivation to take "ownership" of what they need to do to help themselves succeed as early as upper elementary, certainly by middle school, and at the latest by high school. This entire process of shifting from dependency to independence must begin much earlier than high school graduation day. Some of the most important people to help make this shift happen are the parents. Parents play a critical role in the movement from dependence on a team of professionals to figure out how to help the child to getting their child to learn to help themselves. However, this can be impossible for some students who are loaded up with so many assignments, honors, and AP classes that they can't see straight. In fact, some students have never enjoyed the school process and often express disgust and anger but are routinely sent straight into college/university programs because they are "smart." College is just one more school setting with demands to produce, interpret, and perform academically. Does this make sense? Are we helping that student meet their own personal goals or ours?
For those interested in resources for this transition to college, we recommend reading, Students with Asperger Syndrome: A Guide for College Personnel, (2009). This is an excellent book for persons working in higher education, but also parents/caregivers and counselors of middle and high school students who are considering junior college, college/university learning experience for their students. There is also a guide by the same authors, written specifically for parents and teachers of secondary aged students. Both books explore what is expected in higher education critical to success that go far beyond a student's natural intelligence. Some of the aspects they review include executive functioning, written expression, reading comprehension, and social relationship challenges for actively participating in academics. Furthermore, they review aspects needed to succeed in the "co-curricular" elements of a college campus life, including living with roommates, eating soundly, managing free time/leisure time, developing healthy relationships, and managing anxiety. The reality is that the majority of the concepts in this book should be addressed in middle and high school, if not before. If we wait until college to teach responsibility for workloads, organizational skills, and establishing social relatedness, we have waited too long. To teach all these concepts while a student is facing the least amount of direct support in his or her life can be truly overwhelming.
This article is written to encourage all of us to think about ways we can put our students into situations where they can succeed post high school, rather than default to the "norm" that all “bright” or "fully mainstreamed" students should go directly onto a college campus as the next step in their lives. Quite frankly, we see way too many smart and talented kids, as well as those with serious cognitive learning differences, being sent into higher education only to fail. Consider that being really “smart” and high achieving in high school and then having to drop out of college, because of all the other demands, can be extremely damaging to the student’s mental health. The fact is that many with strong skills, but weak motivation to learn new social and organizational adaptations, tend to fair far worse than a student with weaker skills but high motivation!
Motivation to keep working (persistence) and problem solving are both key components for success. In fact, we’ve worked with students who consistently struggled in academics throughout school but loved learning. These same students had such strong persistence and motivation to learn that they did, in fact, graduate with a college degree. On the flip side, we have also worked with students who had very high academic skills but very poor persistence and motivation, and they have either struggled tremendously or dropped out of college life altogether. On a basic level, the "system" or those of us on their support teams, may have failed them by not giving them alternatives or ways to better navigate the larger academic and social world.
Some final thoughts on addressing these concepts prior to graduation:
- The IEP team (parents and professionals alike) should realize that public law gives students the right to a fair and appropriate education. Sometimes teams work so hard to put in so many supports that we end up teaching students to become less independent. Of course, we are not suggesting that supports should not be in place but rather a thoughtful discussion of how to make sure that the student graduates or leaves the school setting with as many independent competencies as possible. For example, some families (or schools) may insist on providing full-time paraprofessionals and close teacher/parent monitoring until graduation day. While this may be needed for some, others should have the opportunity to practice accountability for their own decision making and problem solving. To encourage as much independence as possible, we need to create IEPs that encourage students to accept responsibility for their education and apply the lessons they are learning as part of developing social relationships and self-advocating. This means that both parents and professionals need to allow students to experience their own outcomes for their decision making. If a junior in high school is planning to independently go to college but isn't turning in homework assignments, then an honest discussion needs to happen about what their goals are and what it will take to meet their goals (e.g., turn in homework). If a college-bound student needs the teacher to give reminders and ask for assignments each day, then we are not preparing this student for future expectations. We can guarantee that a university professor will not play that role. Rather, we need to help the student develop their own strategy for remembering to turn in homework (think cell phone reminders). If we don’t consider teaching the latter, then how are we preparing for increasing independence? Are we teaching students to "own" their decisions and realize the natural consequences? Are we doing a disservice if we’ve never given the student an opportunity to practice being successful at using their strategies when supports are around? Some students don’t have a 1:1 aide but still rely on parents/resource teachers to monitor assignments and provide assistance during times of anxiety. If they have never practiced using strategies to manage anxiety, then we once again have failed in preparing for post-graduation. To summarize, just because a student of 16, 17 or 18 may be legally entitled to ongoing and intensive monitoring until they graduate, is it really in their best interest?
- Parents will need to learn to adjust to the idea that "less can be more" in order to allow for a shift from adult-centered responsibility for education and social accomplishments to student-centered responsibility. This may mean discontinuing some of the direct monitoring systems in place as discussed above and replacing them with ways to practice their own independence and problem solving. At other times "less is more" means that we need to put less on their plates to allow them to feel the accomplishment of doing the work for themselves. A negative side effect from some of the federal and state education standards and mandates is the heavy push for all students to remain age-based learners. Many students are born to a range of learning differences, including significant challenges and can't (and should not) be expected to keep pace with the academic and social learning of their neurotypical peers. It is unfair to attempt to keep some students at the same pace as age-based peers and then send them into college programs unprepared to take on the role of independence. If they fail or drop out, then one of their first lessons in young adulthood is that they have failed, or worse, are failures. We see this too often and then mental health problems related to anxiety and/or depression are part of the equation. It is important to keep in mind that outbursts or withdrawal in young adulthood are no longer considered “melt-downs" or “zone outs,” but rather are seen by the community as mental illness. If students end up with mental-health breakdowns because they were pushed into an environment they could not handle post-graduation, then we've taken several steps backwards on the path to independence and life.
- We also need to be thoughtful about transition planning in high school. The process of involving a student in their own future planning is a good idea. However, if we have not given them the opportunity to know what they can personally, realistically accomplish, given their current modifications, accommodations and/or supports, then how can they realistically know the options available to them? Keep in mind that many of our students are excellent concrete learners; they may be good at fact-based information, but not as good with abstract information. They may see education as a fully structured school day, so the only thing they know is the routine of attending classes. Some high schools have started to provide other experiences (work-based, vocational) and we applaud this effort! It's in the best interest for all students to understand that college is not the only option post high school and is certainly not the best choice for all.
- A parent's ability to financially provide a college education for their child does not mean it's always a good choice. All too often, students send very clear messages to professionals/parents that they aren't able to deal with the academic or social burdens. Yet we, as the adults, have our sights set on what constitutes success given how bright or gifted they seem. All this being said, there are students who make it through college, and some go on to get advanced degrees. But these are typically those who have a solid level of independence combined with persistence, motivation, and skills to push through the personal and academic challenges.
- In terms of families, many of us need to set aside our own family expectations of a college education and look closely at the student during sophomore and junior years to evaluate self-learning and self-motivation to engage in a college prep curriculum—meaning they will still have to take many classes that are not geared towards their strengths. Ultimately, college students can specialize in an area of high interest but must first take general education classes that may be of no interest. To get through these classes, it requires grit and resilience—something many lack at 15 or even 23 years old.
Other options that should be part of the discussion:
Vocational programs: Explore this option, if available in high school and certainly post-graduation, for those who struggle with the academic learning environment. Help students explore what type of learning captures their attention best. Not all “bright” students enjoy book learning. Many are hands-on learners and will be far more successful (and happy) applying themselves into the community workforce rather than academic classrooms. Vocational options should be considered for cognitively gifted kids too!
Job/workforce: Many students loathe listening to professionals tell them about why they should shower, acknowledge others, take the time to consider someone else's needs—until these skills are required for them to keep receiving a paycheck. Some individuals may be eventually destined for college but need to take a pit-stop in exploring the real-world experience of holding a job and being accountable to someone other than a parent, teacher or other professional. Others may feel successful and content simply holding a job and feeling they are doing something for themselves for the first time in their life. They may have no desire to continue with college in the immediate future. This means parents need to adjust their own cultural/family expectations just as much as they expected their students to adapt to the social communication expectations over the years. It is difficult to keep in mind, at times, that the real goal for our students/children is to have them feel good about themselves and to work towards establishing and maintaining as much independence as they can handle.
In part two of this blog we will pose 13 questions to explore to consider for the student you are thinking about.