Occupational Therapy Offers Hope to Growing Population of Adults With Autism Spectrum Disorder
For most, special education services and accommodations stop after graduation
ST. LOUIS, MO—When occupational therapist Debora Davidson, PhD, OTR/L, first met 19-year-old Alex Gibson, he had hit a low point in his life. After an unsuccessful attempt at community college, Gibson, who has Asperger’s syndrome, was feeling as if his life had no meaning.
“I fell flat on my face,” Alex said. ”I failed terribly and I was reluctant to bring it forward to my family because I was embarrassed.”
Alex said that when he graduated from high school, he was told about access programs to help him succeed in college, but said that he never took advantage of them. That, combined with taking an English-heavy course load—he’s a math guy—caused him to leave college.
“He said to me, ‘Nothing I do is worthwhile,’” noted Davidson, owner of Bright Futures: Personalized Transition Consulting, adding that Alex’s reaction to leaving college is common among students with and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). “There is a very sizable subset of young adults who do not make it in college. After they drop out, they stay home and watch too much daytime TV, they eat too much, they sleep too much and their lives become small and boring. Parents have to cut back hours at work to keep their young adult children motivated, and supervised; this makes the young adults feel insecure about what they can do, and upsets family systems.”
Davidson sprang to action and the two talked about creating more structure in Alex’s day–sleeping at night, staying up all day, and eating well. She even found him a part time job. The next steps were to get him into a vocationally oriented program. Together, the pair toured technical colleges and auto shops, and they talked with auto technicians about what they had to do to get those positions. “It was good for him to learn and interact with the shop guys,” Davidson said.
“My occupational therapist knew all the things that needed to be done. She knew the right questions to ask and who to get the information from,” Alex said. “I could not have gotten back on track without her.”
Just last week, the pair went to Ranken Technical College and registered Alex for classes. On his entrance exam, Alex had a perfect score on the reading portion, and he scored in the top tier of the math test which allows him to take a “hybrid” math course and skip some of the refresher classes.
“We stayed focused on my future and I’m feeling much more confident this time,” Alex said, adding that he has changed his gals and wants to complete college and instead work at a mid to large size business in the IT department, helping employees troubleshoot and set up server farms.
Alex’s struggle with transition is becoming more frequent as children with an ASD become young adults, graduate from high school, and continue to college or the workplace. According to the most recent research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network, about 1 in 88 children has been identified with an ASD.
“Parents are unsure of what is going to happen to their child with special needs after graduation from high school when the special education services and individualized education plans end. Davidson says. “For some, graduation from high school is like stepping off a cliff in terms of guidance and services Even if the student has had great transition planning in high school, someone needs to be there to help them take the next step.”
After 33 years working with school-age children and teaching in university programs, Davidson decided to start Bright Futures, an independent practice designed to bridge the gap in services to adults. Her clients range in age from 19 to 63 years. “While there are some excellent programs, these agencies cannot always meet the individual needs of clients who do not fit their models of service. Additionally, many programs have lengthy waiting lists, resulting in frustration and lost time. I just knew there had to be a better way to help these individuals lead fulfilling lives, so I wanted to try something new” Davidson said. “For many of these people, life has been disappointing so far and I want to help them get more out of life.”
The focus of occupational therapy is to help all people to identify and engage in activities that are personally valued, and that are key to being active and contributing members of their families and communities. In occupational therapy, the client is asked to help design the outcome goals, and the interventions to be used. Therapy often involves everyday activities that help the client to gain or regain skills and healthy habits of living.
More information on occupational therapy’s role in addressing autism spectrum disorders, fact sheets on ASDs, and tips for family members and other caregivers are available at www.aota.org/autism.
To interview Debora Davidson or Alex Gibson, contact AOTA Media Relations Manager Katie Riley at 301-652-6611, ext. 2963, or firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about Bright Futures, visit www.b-futures.com.
Founded in 1917, the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) represents the professional interests and concerns of more than 140,000 occupational therapists, assistants, and students nationwide. The Association educates the public and advances the profession of occupational therapy by providing resources, setting standards including accreditations, and serving as an advocate to improve health care. Based in Bethesda, Md., AOTA’s major programs and activities are directed toward promoting the professional development of its members and assuring consumer access to quality services so patients can maximize their individual potential. For more information, go to www.aota.org.