- Parenting Adults with ASD: Lessons for Researchers and Clinicians
Recent reviews of treatments for individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) reveal how little we still know about how to help adolescents with ASD and their families successfully transition into adulthood (Shattuck et al., 2012b; Taylor et al., 2012a). Shattuck and colleagues found that services in the United States for adults with ASD were marked by high unemployment rates, a reliance on families to provide care across the lifespan, high turnover rates in front-line service providers, insufficient transition planning for high school students, and generally insufficient services to meet current needs. In a recent Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) Comparative Effectiveness Review, the authors similarly found that there is very little evidence available to pinpoint specific intervention approaches for adolescents and young adults with ASD due to a lack of good quality studies. This was especially true for evidence-based approaches to support the transition of youth with ASD to adulthood (Taylor et al., 2012a).
For the last decade, with dramatic increases in both ASD awareness and estimates of ASD prevalence, our field has understandably focused intensely on improving early detection and treatment of ASD. Our diagnostic tools and understanding of ASD presentation in very young children has improved tremendously. Different from many of the young adults in these stories, who were often diagnosed in their early teens, we now aim to identify children well before their third birthdays. Research has consistently shown that early and intense ASD-specific intervention can dramatically enhance outcomes for children with ASD. As such, there has been heavy investment in attempting to take full advantage of this early window of neuro-plasticity. However, as these stories illustrate, these children grow up. Their needs change, and our systems are often poorly equipped to help them live fulfilling lives, capitalize on their talents, and obtain independence and equal access, while still providing a safe, supportive environment. Without readily accessible and understandable coordinated systems of care, parents are forced to adopt the multiple roles of case manager, teacher, therapist, community educator, advocate, job coach, housing specialist, financial planner, and often, lifelong caregiver. These stories eloquently illustrate those struggles and successes.
Grief and Joy: Opposite Sides of the Same Parenting Coin
The idea of grieving a diagnosis is controversial. Many of the writers seemed to feel conflicted about their grief responses and the validity of their feelings. Research shows that many families view the diagnostic process as extremely stressful (Siklos & [End Page 199] Kerns, 2005; Heiman, 2002). Feelings of sadness, anxiety, and depression are common at the point of diagnosis and may reemerge as milestones pass unmet. Families must modify the futures they imagined for their children and begin to envision new goals and dreams. Anonymous Three described this process when she wrote:
Most children grow up, go to school, get jobs, move out of their parents’ home, etc. My husband and I have had to seriously consider how much of these are even possible for a young man with autism, even one who has a good number of functional life skills.
Tasks of adolescence and adulthood such as starting high school, driving a car, and moving out of the house may be delayed and hard won if met. Raising a child with ASD appears to have particular challenges. Throughout this process, families begin to redefine what “success” means. Rather than ascribing to societal standards, they find joy in personal milestones. McDonald described the triumph of teaching his nephew to shake women’s hands instead of touching their hair, an important safety goal that took three months to accomplish. Each family thereby creates its own path.
People outside of the family often do not understand the complicated interplay of love and obligation as well as the frustration and fulfillment that families experience. Just like any family, the parents of children with ASD describe many joys in addition to their struggles. They see their children’s strengths in a world that too often focuses on their weaknesses. Gifted with the everyday experience of their child’s development, they see past the necessity of a...