Strengths and support needs of autism

Let’s continue our discussion on the duality of autism. With my clients, I often talk about how autism brings incredible gifts and superpowers that create your unique personality – there is no one in the world exactly like you!

On the other hand, autism can also make work, school or relationships more difficult. This requires autistic young adults to build coping skills and strategies to navigate daily life.

Today, let’s focus on the key strength and support need as outlined by AANE’s “What is Autism?” resource.

Strength: Fair & Just

Time and time again, my autistic clients show their unique talents to fight injustice. Whether they are advocating for equal rights, rallying for the underdog or empathizing with animals, autistic individuals tend to have a strong sense of fairness.

My clients are often the first to notice when a classmate or friend is being treated unfairly. Like Greta Thunberg’s tireless advocacy for the environment, my clients see injustices in the world and worry deeply about them. I have had clients speak to me passionately and with intense knowledge about issues such as bullying, social justice and inequality.

This moral code serves as a strength throughout many areas of life.

In work enviroments, autistic team members may feel compelled to speak up if they see or witness something that goes against their sense of morality. They may also be less likely to participate in workplace gossip or harmful bullying.

Among personal relationships, this morality leads autistic individuals to be fierce and loyal friends. Rather than looking to build relationships for personal gain, many autistic young adults invest in relationships with a long-term perspective that benefits both individuals.

Support Need: Self-advocacy

On the other side of the equation, recognizing one’s own needs and vocalizing those needs can be a challenge for autistic individuals. They may struggle to understand their own needs or may have a hard time communicating those needs to parents, teachers, friends or managers. Self-advocacy is also knowing when you need to ask for help.

In my coaching work with autistic teenagers and young adults, we work on self-advocacy skills so my clients have the tools they need to stand up for their needs. This can look different depending on what phase of life they are in:

For high school students

Self-advocacy in high school looks like the student beginning to take on more responsibility with their teachers and practitioners. This may mean that the student leads their IEP meetings, handles communication with teachers about accommodations or schedules their own medical check-ins.

Meaningful participation in IEP meetings can great first step to developing strong self-advocacy skills for high school students. When you know a meeting is coming up, talk with your student about how they are feeling about the IEP supports and goals. Encourage them to express their thoughts and give their feedback to the team. They’ll start to see the impact self-advocacy can have on their wellbeing. If your student isn’t participating in these meetings yet, include them as soon as possible. 

In college readiness packages, self-advocacy is one of the 6 core components of preparing for life after high school graduation. I encourage families to begin to walk back parental involvement starting junior year of high school so the student has runway to grow these skills while surrounded by the familiar support system of home.

For college students

With the increased independence at college, it’s easy to blend into the crowd if you don’t raise your hand for what you need. Autistic college students will need to meet with professors to discuss accommodations, navigate nuanced conversations with roommates and determine which friendships they want to invest in.

The process of connecting with the college disability services office can be a wonderful opportunity to strengthen self-advocacy skills. Once your student has accepted admission, work with them on their accommodations request. Provide the scaffolding, encouragement and support they need to go through the process, but put them in the driver’s seat. Once they begin classes, your student will need to inform professors about accommodations. This is a form of self-advocacy that is crucially important to college success.

For working adults

When you enter the working world, there is a shared language arond workplace accommodations. The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) is an incredible resource for autistic employees to have productive conversations with their managers about reasonable accommodations.  This JAN guide to requesting workplace accommodations helps you make a specific plan to ask for the accommodations that you need to be successful at work.

Embracing both sides 

Autistic adults strong sense of fairness and justice can be frustrating without an outlet. Advocacy can be a great outlet. It is often difficult for my clients to see their needs as important or they think they are bothering others when they express their needs. This is one reason self-advocacy can be so difficult.

Autistic young adults may have different support needs, but they also have incredible strengths. In my coaching work, we always try to embrace both sides of this coin that combine to make each person their own unique individual.