Help for Young Adults with Autism and Their Families
Having been around autistic young people since my youngest son was born with the disorder nearly 20 years ago, I recently began conducting small social groups for young men with autism. Our goals are simple: to provide a safe space for young adults with social emotional deficits to gather weekly with each other, practice listening and sharing skills, play games, explore emotions, and take occasional risks to reveal a part of themselves to others. Sharing is often met with warmth, enthusiasm, and encouragement from the other members of the group. We frequently end our sessions with a game called “Two Truths and a Lie,” which gives us plenty of laughs as each participant tries to nonchalantly pull off a lie embedded in two truthful statements.
During the pandemic, these sessions are occurring on my tele-health platform, so it gives us an opportunity to share items, objects, and pets from each person’s home environment.
Similar to working with younger kids, working with young adults on the autism spectrum requires attention to specific deficits with a plan to build skills, carefully chosen exercises to elicit buy-in, lots of interactivity and spontaneity, an energetic attitude, and absolute authenticity. Just like in life, things don’t always go according to plan. Sometimes a topic I’ve planned bombs or feels inaccessible, a game experiences glitches on the digital platform, or a member of the group is temporarily suspended from using electronics. But this is a good life lesson that we can shift gears cheerfully and swiftly. For this reason, I always have a few back-up activities planned.
Lately, we have been exploring emotional opposites. I ask, “What is the opposite of enthusiastic?” “What is the opposite of depressed?” “Once identified, can you make up a sentence using the word ‘shame’”?
But these young men are not children. And they reveal their lives to each other in surprising and touching ways. Birthdays, breakups, job responsibilities, mistakes they’ve made, and even deaths of loved ones have all found their way into the group. One mom recently told me her son seems lighter, more flexible, his nervous system somehow more organized, after our sessions.
I also run a monthly group for the parents of special needs teens. There, we talk about the challenges of disciplining kids with social and emotional deficits. We seek ways of managing behavior towards younger siblings, getting kids who say “no” to every suggestion to find the flexibility to give something a try, setting limits that are meaningful, while using positive behavior supports like those espoused by ABA Therapy, to increase motivation as well as compliance with parents’ desired outcomes. Often, it’s helpful to share and listen and realize that we are not alone in this struggle. Sure, we can offer strategies and suggestions which may or may not work, but at the end of the day, it’s the shared journey that brings comfort and gives each parent renewed strength to return to the difficult work of parenting these kids, bringing a little bit of hope and a smile back to their families.
While the rest of the world is just beginning to realize how very challenging it is to parent a special needs child; While workplaces in this country are just beginning to grapple with the employment needs of young adults with ASD; And while governmental funds ebb and flow erratically to support families with care, education, and housing needs for disabled adults, Systemic Family Therapy can be a place where the whole family feels cared for, sheltered, and understood. It is a place where the experts don’t have the perfect answers, but where we can search for workable solutions together.