As a coach, I think about communication constantly. How do I communicate clearly? What types of language will encourage my clients? How do I mirror their language back to them?

Whenever I have a communication question, I think about what Gabriele Nicolet would do. Gabriele, MA, CCC-SLP, is a speech therapist and parent coach with over 20 years’ experience serving families. She is the owner of SpeechKids, a private speech therapy practice serving children in the DMV. She is also a co-founder of Raising Orchid Kids, a support and education organization for parents raising neurodiverse children.

On top of her impressive accomplishments, Gabriele is an incredible encourager. She has a unique ability to inspire confidence in both parents and children and I’m so honored to have her perspective on the blog today.

Coach Beth

Working toward independence in autistic teens and young adults by Gabriele Nicolet

For parents of neurodivergent children, figuring out how to encourage independence can be maddening.

Maddening because autistic kids learn differently from the way most of us expect. Maddening because they need things explained; broken down; chunked. Maddening because it seems to take so long and require so. many. steps.

Finding those “Just Right Challenges” can be… well… a challenge.

Here’s a list of some things that teens – many autistic ones too – can be expected to do:

  • Prepare a simple snack or meal for themselves AND clean it up
  • Take out the trash
  • Take their plate to the sink or dishwasher
  • Make their bed (and maybe even change their sheets)
  • Do their laundry
  • Pick out their own clothes for the day
  • Wake up for school on their own
  • Clean up after themselves in the bathroom
  • Gather and prepare their own school materials

Obviously, the degree of independence that a person will experience is at least partially influenced by their physical and mental ability to carry a task through. There are obstacles to full independence sometimes. (Though even someone who needs assistance can have some independence). 

Sometimes the obstacle standing in the way of our children’s independence is us. 

We are fearful that they’ll fail. Or be rejected. Or teased. Or hurt.

We are frustrated that tasks take so long to do or to learn and we just don’t have time or patience.

We are anxious that we can’t help them enough or that they’ll never learn.

And these fears are not unfounded. Many autistic kids are bullied and rejected and teased on the regular. They take longer to learn some skills (and not as long to learn others). But staying in fear and frustration and anxiety doesn’t help them gain independence; it doesn’t change anything; and it just makes us miserable.

Teaching independence and self-reliance is an antidote to failure; and rejection; and teasing. The pride that comes from being able to do something for oneself is where self-reliance comes from.

It’s part of growing up.

And it doesn’t work when other people do for you all the time.

The last thing we want to do is deprive our children of feelings of self-worth, accomplishment, and pride in themselves. The last thing we want is for them to stay helpless.

But when we jump in to help, tweak, improve, teach, show, demonstrate, problem-solve, discuss and analyze with them and for them, we actually DO deprive them. We deprive them of figuring out their own mistakes. We deprive them of ownership of their own lives. We deprive them of themselves.

Even if the way they do things is “wrong” or “awkward” or “different” or “unconventional”.

Next time you confront questions of independence with your autistic teen, see if you can stay in curiosity for a few moments longer before you go into “problem-solving mode”.

  1. Notice your own internal response when your child is trying to do something independently. Are you struggling as they struggle? Do you want to jump in and “fix it’ (socially or otherwise?). You might not change anything right now, but just becoming aware of your own internal state can be illuminating.
  2. Ask yourself, what is a “Just Right Challenge” for your child? Not what’s “age appropriate”; not “what do we expect”, but what is Next for YOUR child? If you can answer that question, then you’ll know exactly what to do next as you help them establish more independence.

Sometimes the answers are obvious: if they’ve never taken the trash out, show them how to do it and tell them when you expect them to do it. And then be prepared to practice many many times.

Sometimes the answers are less obvious.

If executive function is a challenge (as it is for many autistic people), having a visual system (written or picture) to rely on can eliminate the need for an adult to follow them around reminding them what to do all the time.

If communication is difficult, having a gesture or system that lets a caregiver know when and whether the person needs help might work well.

If getting up in the morning is a problem because the teen keeps turning off the alarm clock that’s next to their bed, it might be time to get creative with a backup system (who’s not mom or dad).

Whatever the solution, staying in curiosity and asking “how can we get there” will always serve you better than raging against the fact that the independence you and your child are seeking isn’t coming quickly enough.

Independence is a life skill that we all need. Figuring out how to get it to our autistic kids is the challenge. Watching them feel proud of their accomplishment is the reward. Totally worth it.