Do You and Your Autistic Child Have the Same Goals?

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Most parents have very specific goals for their children -- and even more specific goals for their children with autism.

Often, those goals start with "I want my child to be happy." Happiness, however, is tough to quantify.

Do you mean "I want my child to feel no anxiety, fear, or sadness, and to have every desire instantly satisfied?" 

Do you mean "I want my child to have a life that fulfills his or her personal desires and goals?"

Or do you mean "I want my child to have the life that I envision for him or her?"

Few parents really want their children-- even their autistic children-- to go through life in a happy haze of TV watching and potato chips, cushioned from all engagement in the real world.

But quite a few moms and dads are far more interested in their own visions of happiness than in their child's actual desires or preferences.

This makes sense to a degree: children with autism may have a tough time envisioning or articulating specific ideas about what they want from life. Even teens or adults on the spectrum may be more focused on the moment than on the long term. And goal-making requires a degree of abstract thinking and executive planning that may be unreasonable to expect.

Problems arise, however, when parents fill in any blanks with their own visions of what is desirable, interesting, comfortable, or preferable.

That's because the hopes and dreams of a neurotypical adult are rarely a good match for those of an autistic child, teen, or young adult.

In fact parental goals are often created, not with their actual autistic child in mind, but with the hope (sometimes subconscious) that their autistic child will somehow morph into a typical adult.

In the long run, many parents hope and dream, their child will fit into society's norms and expectations-- thus making mom, dad, grandma, grandad, and society in general happier and more comfortable.

Do any of these goals sound familiar?

  • "I want my child to have a nice group of friends."
  • "I want my child to live independently."
  • "I want my child to get married and have a family."
  • "I want my child to behave and think normally."
  • "I want my child to hold down a good job and advance in her career."

As you may have noticed, every one of the goals above -- all of which are commonly expressed by parents of autistic children -- are built around preferences and abilities that require strong social communication skills, solid executive planning skills, a preference for spending time in social groups, and quite a bit of personal ambition. They also assume a desire to find a permanent romantic partner and (ideally) produce offspring.

People with autism have many strengths, skills, interests, and desires. But because they are autistic, they are specifically NOT likely to be strengths, skills, interests, or desires that revolve around social groups or the desire to impress others.

Many people with autism actively prefer solitude to groups.  Some people with autism do pair up, but many find intense intimacy to be overwhelming.

What's more, it's a rare person with autism who is ambitious in the usual sense of wanting to impress and outdo his peers or parents.

So... what ARE appropriate goals for a child with autism? As with everything else related to the autism spectrum, the answers will vary -- and they will depend upon the strengths, interests, and desires of your individual child.

What's the best way to get started with setting goals, then?  If your child is verbal and able to communicate about complex topics, start a conversation about long term planning. If not, and if you need to set some goals for the purpose of transition planning, watch and engage with child. What does she love? What is he good at? When is he or she most relaxed, comfortable, and engaged? Only your child can tell you what's best for him or her.

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