students in classHigh school is, for most, a time to polish the independent-living skills that can lead to a successful adult life, but for students with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), the transition from student to adult is not so smooth. Researchers from the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill’s Frank Porter Graham (FPG) Child Development Institute and UNC’s School of Education reviewed studies to discover how young people with ASD can best become independent young adults. They found that, although teens with ASD struggle with developing independence, they have other skills that can help them overcome their challenges and as they learn how to be adults.

Independence is the key factor in whether students are able to live on their own and hold jobs after high school, but adolescents with ASD face challenges with developing independence. Teens with ASD often have communication difficulties or trouble observing others and may not get the help or input they need to learn how to function independently.

That is why Kara Hume, co-principal investigator of the FPG’s Center of Secondary Education for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders thinks that “teaching independence to students with autism should be a central focus of their activities in high school.” Although students with ASD have deficits in some areas, they can make up for it with strengths in others. Most people with ASD have superior visual thinking and mental imagery skills compared to neurotypical people. Hume and her team believe that these visual skills can be leveraged to promote effective interventions for high school students on the autism spectrum.

The research team screened 29,000 articles seeking the best interventions for ASD high schoolers. They found 12 evidence-based practices for school-aged students that have a strong visual component. One way to promote independence among this demographic is the use of visual schedules, which let students with ASD keep track of what needs to be done at home, school, or work while minimizing the need for support from a teacher or caregivers. Another possibility is video modeling, an intervention proven effective with other age groups. The researchers think that video instruction could be scaffolded to provide decreasing levels of prompting to students with ASD as they conquer independent skills.

As to how to get these visual aids into the hands of students, the researchers suggest technology that is already in most kids’ hands: iPhones and iPads (or other mobile devices). These hand-held technologies are ubiquitous enough that students with ASD can use them without comment from their peers.

This research is published in the journal Remedial and Special Education.

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