Today I am excited to feature guest blogger (and friend of mine), Bill Wong, OTD, OTR/L. Bill recently had the amazing privilege of giving a TED talk at TedxGrandForks, and last year he was named Autism Parenting Magazine’s “Top Occupational Therapist Writer” of 2014. I first met Bill in 2009 during our first week of OT school; then, in 2010, Bill discovered his diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome. Since then, he has been passionate about advancing awareness of occupational therapy and its role in helping individuals and families with autism. Bill is one of the most motivated and MOTIVATING people I know, and today he is going to share tips to help parents of teens with autism as they support their kids’ preparation for college. Take it away, Bill!
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Before I decided to go to occupational therapy school, my mom told me, “The higher up you go in education, the more jobs you will be qualified for. In fact, you will be qualified to do some specialized jobs that other people might not be able to do.”
Looking back, I appreciate my mom saying that to me because I have now been able to establish myself as a globally-connected occupational therapist in spite of finding out my diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome during my time as an occupational therapy student in 2010. However, with many parents in the autism community, it takes more than simply encouraging their children to pursue higher education. For some, getting their kids into college can seem like a dream rather than a realistic possibility. For others, their children may be capable of getting into college, but the process will be challenging.
Below are 10 tips to help parents of teens with autism as they prepare for high school and college:
1. Remember that high school performance can set the tone for where your children might be for college. There are some key things that might determine your child’s placement of classes in 9th grade during 8th grade, which may increase or decrease the chances of getting into Advanced Placements and Honors classes in future years in high school. Therefore, the summer before their 8th grade school year is a great time to outline a preliminary 4-year plan for high school. This plan can include identifying target schools for college, outlining courses your child should take in high school, and when to study for SAT or ACT exams. After all, if your child does not get off to a good start academically in high school, it can mean they might have to play a lot of catch up with their GPA. Of course, since it is a preliminary plan, you should revisit the plan every year with your child to see if they are on the right track or if goals need to be modified.
2. Teach your child how to advocate for themselves when it comes to what they need at school. They not only should know why certain accommodations are in place for them, but they should also be able to identify the best combination of accommodations that will help them succeed in school (if applicable). Starting this process will help your child know what they will need to succeed in college.
3. For children with sensory challenges, think of high school as a good simulation for college, from a sensory perspective. I was in a high school with over 3,000 students. Navigating busy hallways to go from classroom to classroom in eight minutes can be challenging. I would run into people more than once trying to make it to each classroom in time while using a rolling backpack back in the day. That said, it turned out to be a good warm up for college because, at the college I attended for undergrad, there could be a few thousand people trying to get to different parts of campus at a time. If your child has sensory challenges, it is important to identify coping strategies to help with navigating situations like these as soon as possible.
4. Keep in mind that high school can be a good test for children in how they deal with adversity, especially if they face struggles for the first time. Train them in doing positive self-talk so they can develop resilience. That said, you know your child the best, so don’t be afraid to step in when you feel it’s important. If you need to know when you might need to step in, read all the syllabi for your child’s classes as soon as possible and identify key points that you may want to check in on to make sure they are on-track at school. It’s better to intervene too early to try to salvage a grade your child deserves rather than too late.
5. During high school, help your child learn about their own study habits so they can know how they study best, whether it is independently or with a study group. This is important because your child should learn to be independent learners by the time they reach college. In addition, that information will help them in time management while trying to balance the need to study for their courses and any extracurricular activities they might participate in.
6. Think about your child’s navigation and community mobility skills during the high school years. Depending on where they may go to college, developing necessary community mobility skills is important. Whether utilizing public transportation, accessing school shuttles, or driving a car, these skills will come into play a lot during adulthood.
7. If you anticipate your child might not be living at home in college, give them opportunities for practicing staying at locations away from home and/or with others. It will be important for them to learn how to live with others in dorms or apartments, or by themselves in studios off-campus. Getting your child to go on things such as mission trips can be good practice for living with others away from home and getting along with them. Also, it will provide good practice for working on their activities of daily living skills as independent adults.
8. Support your child’s ability (or challenges) in making at least a few friends in each class they are taking. This can be good in case they are in classrooms where their teachers have students working in groups regularly and/or if your child learns best in study groups. Working on their social communication and/or relationship-building skills with peers is vital to their success in high school and college. After all, somebody your child knows or meets in high school or college might very well end up being their co-worker in the workplace later on.
9. Have your child volunteer in the community. Not only does this present opportunities for your child to put on their “brag sheet” when they apply for colleges, but they also present opportunities to develop work skills and build relationships with others in the work environment.
10. Aim high, but be realistic. Getting to a good 4-year college is many families’ dream. But 4-year colleges are not for everyone, and such options might not be realistic or a good fit for your child for a variety of reasons. The more important thing is to help your child progress so they can be more likely to support themselves in adulthood, whether it’s going to trade schools, community colleges, or some other option.
All in all, college planning is a marathon.
Procrastination will not get the job done well.
The most important person in this process is not you, but actually your child. The earlier your child takes charge of the process, the more likely your child will have fruitful college planning experiences. And depending on where your child is at in high school, high school can also be a great transitional place for them to be ready for college not only from an academic perspective, but also from social and sensory perspectives.
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Bill Wong was born in Hong Kong and came to the United States with his family as an 11 year old in 1996. Bill received his bachelor’s degree in statistics from University of California, Riverside in 2007, master’s degree in occupational therapy from University of Southern California in 2011, and clinical doctorate degree in occupational therapy from University of Southern California in 2013.
Bill was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome in August 2010. After a year in trying to find his identity in occupational therapy, he decided to establish his specialty in autism. Since receiving his diagnosis, Bill has guest lectured on the topic of autism at a variety of master’s level OT programs, and has presented at occupational therapy conferences at state, national, and international levels.
Bill’s passion for his occupational therapy career is to be able to deliver occupational therapy presentations to Chinese speaking countries in Chinese and to continue to establish himself as a leader in occupational therapy and autism communities.
Follow Bill on Twitter: @BillWongOT