Independent Living Skills

By Sherron Ostrander, used with permission  – feel free to copy or re-post, but please give credit.

What do you need to prepare for before your young adult with Asperger’s goes off to college or independent living? Here’s one mother’s answer to that.

My guy is a sophomore in college, so some of this we prepared for, some we lucked into, and some of it is stuff I wish I could have foreseen. Some of these are for college only, but many are just stuff any young adult needs to know/be able to do before he leaves home. Some (like banking) apply to our NT (neuro-typical) kids too, and you’d be horrified to find out how many of them leave home not knowing them! Don’t let him tell you, “Moommm, you know I know that.” Make him show you. Knowing the theory and physics of playing pool doesn’t mean that you aren’t going to get hustled for everything you have.

Considerations Before College

If he is college-bound, he would do well to get his feet wet (through dual enrollment and/or testing out of subjects —see below) before he graduates from high school. It will help reduce his hours (and anxiety) later. When he is in college he will probably only be able to handle about 12 hours per semester, not for academic reasons, but because of the time and energy necessary to organize and plan for each class. He will need the jumpstart that a few credits will give him, because if he doesn’t have 30 hours at the end of two semesters, he’s still a freshman, with all the disadvantages freshmen have with registration.

College entrance tests (the PSAT, SAT and ACT)—Have him take them as soon as he can. They can be repeated if he doesn’t like his score, and GET ACCOMMODATIONS.

Accommodations—You have more ability to do this the younger he is. Those testing organizations and the colleges you are aiming at are NOT subject to IDEA (The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), not required to help your child do his best, and don’t care a whit about your child.   They only have to comply with the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), which means they only need to give him “reasonable” accommodations that will allow him to do AVERAGE on the test. In college, even to receive the accommodations, he must produce appropriate legal documentation to the institution. The most common, easy to get accommodation is extra time. Get it. Make his high school teachers routinely give it to him, even if he doesn’t need it. It can make the difference between a 32 and a 33 on the ACT, which to us would have meant $2000 more scholarship money, every semester! But if he’s taken the test already without accommodations, and made average or better, then it’s WAY too late to ask for accommodations.

Dual enrollment in community college—Remember that community college is college too. There are TONS of scholarships for transfer students who have gotten their associates degree at a community college. In addition, if your child goes to a public CC, in almost all cases, the credits transfer in full to any other public in-state institute, including those taken in high school as dual enrollment classes. I highly recommend dual enrollment for calculus, or Japanese or whatever your child’s strongest subject is (this way he only has to “get used to” the concept of college classes, not learn a whole new subject, too). He will get both high school and college credit for those classes. It gets him out of the high school environment and into the college environment in small little chunks that help him “acclimatize.”

CLEP (College Level Examination Program)—Encourage him to CLEP any courses he can. You can find out exactly how to do this in the registrar’s office. And remember that most CLEP tests must be taken before the student enrolls in any class in that series, i.e., if you know he can CLEP out of Cal A, don’t start Cal B until after the CLEP tests. He can begin to knock out credit before he’s even enrolled on campus. So, have him start taking CLEP credit in 11th grade.

Focusing on local schools—Encourage him to look only at nearby schools. If he’s not going to be able to be both self-sufficient AND able to handle classes AND dorm life, that’s okay. Start looking close to home. There’s no real reason for someone to have to deal with ALL those major transitions the same day!

Graduating—He is NOT required to graduate high school in 4 years. Talk to the people in charge. Arrange a five year high school plan (include making some classes like Home Ec and Consumer Ed, or whatever the modern equivalent, required). Give him that extra year to mature and get a good handle on those organization and self-sufficiency skills. I usually advise folks to repeat 8th grade, which is often much easier than stretching out high school, however, if you can arrange a 5-year high school plan that only goes for half days the last two years, leaving him to dual enroll at the community college for one class, that would be unbelievably helpful.

NOTE: Applying to colleges is very stressful, and not something he will ever need to do again as an adult. Don’t let them tell you it’s like applying for a job. It’s not.

Practical Campus Skills

● Job interviewing—These apply to interviews for admissions and or scholarships, too. And later, talking to his advisor about his class schedule, or professor about an assignment, etc. The easiest way to learn this (okay, there’s no easy way) is to have him apply for jobs. Bring home typical applications and practice filling them out at home. Turn them in to real possible employers, looking at the face of the person he turns the application in to. Even putting on the tie and going to the interview, if called. It doesn’t matter if he doesn’t need a job. Most folks under 18 just plain can’t get a job, especially if you are any where near a college campus. And if he does by some fluke get an offer, “No thanks,” is a fine answer. Do this BEFORE he needs a job or to interview for a scholarship, when the pressure is less. And unlike filling out college applications, these real job interviews teach valuable, real life skills, as well as useful on-campus skills.

● Time management—He needs to know how to organize and plan study time when the teacher is not going to remind him about homework or tests. He needs to know exactly how to keep a calendar.

● Self advocacy—He needs to know that he CAN ask for help, SHOULD ask for help, and who those people or organizations are that he can ask. Help him identify times when he could have asked for help instead of struggling by himself, not even knowing where to start.

●Understanding FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act)—Make sure that he understands that, however unreasonable it seems, the federal government requires that he sign (in some cases ask for and sign) legal papers to allow you to even be present if his grades are being discussed. If you want to know anything about what is going on with him, or speak to anyone about him, like for instance helping him and his advisor pick the appropriate, and the appropriate number of, classes, then signing the papers is an absolute must. Usually the document can be signed and filed in the registrar’s office, but the student may be asked to sign it by each individual the two of you talk to. Sometimes the same person will ask for it every new semester. This may be aggravating to you, and/or to our super practical Aspies, but it is to protect your child’s privacy, and possible changes of heart. After the letter is filed, you may request to receive your student’s transcripts directly from the registrar.

●Meeting the folks who will be there for him—It’s probably a good idea for the two of you to go to his advisor’s office and introduce yourselves, possibly during or before orientation. Your child’s adviser can be an important advocate for him on campus. And an adviser familiar with Asperger’s will be a pearl beyond price in helping your student weave through the registering for classes maze, and in helping pick teachers whose style will best work with the different learning styles of those on the spectrum. Make sure your student makes it clear to his advisor and professors that it’s okay to email you (not JUST you, but cc you on things she sends out) or talk to you on the phone, too. Unless specifically spelled out, the LOA does not give the professor the right or the ability to contact a parent. Make sure that FERPA release is on file and in the hands of anyone who might need it.

When classes start, make sure the professor has a copy of the LOA (Letter of Accommodation). Your student is responsible for it himself, and it is something of a hassle of bureaucracy. At his school, Thomas has to request a blank “request for LOA,” fill it out with his class schedule, and the requested accommodations (extra test time, alternate place for testing, all email to be cc’d to parent, etc.), turn it in to Disabilities Services for approval, and then later go pick it up and make enough copies for all his professors, and deliver it to each professor. Every class, every semester, even if it’s a part 2 class being taught by the same teacher he had for part 1. Legally, a professor is not allowed to make any special accommodation for a student without an official LOA. Though students most often deliver their professors their letters on the first day of class, delivering the letter before classes begin might give (the two of) you a good excuse to meet the professor. Make (damn) sure he goes with you. Many professors will not want to talk to the parent, only the student, so that can be a touchy area. Make sure the professor believes that you will not be a helicopter parent, interfering with every bad grade. AND DON’T BE A HELICOPTER PARENT. Be aware of that fine line between helping and interfering with his chances to grow. After the first year, you probably won’t need to meet any of his professors, especially if you and he have a good relationship with his academic adviser.

●Reading maps—Many colleges, even small ones, are a confusing and disorganized jumble of buildings. In addition to the maps, make sure he goes on the campus tour that admissions departments give as a routine part of orientation. Have him walk through his class schedule the day before he actually has to be there on time. Knowing you are in the right building, in the right class and will have plenty of time to make it to the next correct classroom, is a great confidence booster.

Living Successfully On or Off Campus

●Doing laundry—Your son needs to know how to do laundry in a coin-operated machine. Start by teaching him how to do laundry at home. This practical skill is one of the most important he’ll need for functioning well in the dorms, and later in real life.

●Cleaning—If he doesn’t already know, he should learn how to make his own bed, sweep, vacuum, mop, swish a toilet bowl, wipe off a counter, and to keep the garbage emptied.

●Loading a dishwasher—You probably know that this isn’t necessarily as obvious as it might seem. Make sure you teach him not to block any part of the moving apparatus with dishes. And that some dishes melt if placed on the bottom rack. And that dried-on cereal (for instance) must be hand-scrubbed off. No number of trips through a dishwasher will get it. And NEVER use dish detergent meant for hand washing in the machine! (leads to flooded, sudsy kitchens)

●Doing the grocery shopping—This is overwhelming for many “normal” adults. Teach your children about how to shop wisely and efficiently, what the general layout of most stores is (produce to one side, dairy in the back) how to coupon, how to figure out which product is cheaper or has ingredients he’s allergic to, how to tell if the produce or meat is fresh, how to go through the check-out and pay with different methods of payment. They need to know appropriate etiquette for standing in line, allowing other, smaller orders to sometimes go in front, what the express lane is, answering the chit-chat from the cashier, paper or plastic, whether or not tipping bag-people is appropriate in your area, and a myriad of other small pieces of information that aren’t taught in school, or generally discussed, and that someone on the spectrum may or MAY NOT pick up on his own.

●Cleaning out a fridge—He should know when something is spoiled, how to properly store food, and how long things usually are still good. (i.e., eggs for weeks, but lettuce for days, and takeout sushi about 15 hours.)

●Preparing several simple meals—(or make sure you get the full meal plan) In any case he’ll need to know things like, NEVER put the popcorn in the microwave and walk away from it, because it doesn’t take half the suggested cooking time in order for it to become a smoking bag of toxic waste.

??How to teach all this?? Your Aspie should have had plenty of chores already by the time he’s 15. Along with teaching self-sufficiency, chores make him a valuable, contributing member of the family. Imagine the difference in self-esteem between what a competent, useful child feels and what someone feels just watching everyone else be useful.

●Taking public transportation—If it is appropriate in your area, or the area of the campus, he needs to learn how to use the bus system. City buses and having correct change is NOTHING like riding on the school bus. Many Aspies are not ready to drive until later in life. In those cases, if he’s not going to be at home, or you don’t want to spend the rest of your life as his chauffeur, then navigating public transport (including how to call for a taxi or use a car-pooling system) should go to the top of your list, now.

●Driving—Some will never drive (see above). Most are not ready to drive at 16. Many will think they aren’t ready at 18. But a fair number, who aren’t even close to being ready at 15, may be by 19. Learners’ permits are good for 4 years in most states, and do not count as being a driver on most insurance companies. And I firmly believe in self-fulfilling prophecies. Get him his learner’s permit, and go on as if you are fully as confident he will eventually drive as you are that he will go to college. Even if you don’t want him to drive. When he is in the car, have him sit up front and pay attention. Have the driver point out things to look for, potential problems, good following distance. If you have an older sibling being taught to drive, have the younger one there in the car, too.

Succeeding in Classes

●Writing emails to professors, counselor/advisors, teaching assistants, lab partners, etc.–Professionals will expect formal emails. He should always address the professor as “Dr.” and never use text abbreviations when he communicates with him or her through email. Not all faculty members respond to emails, nor do they necessarily have time to chat before or after class, so make sure he knows what the office hours are (where to find them: usually in the syllabus and posted outside the professor’s office) and that he is free to drop in at any time during those, or make an appointment.

●Doing group projects—They are very popular in some majors and in many core courses. This skill needs to be practiced in high school. This is another case in which knowing the theory of groups is not the same as remembering to ask your lab partners before you take over the experiment because they obviously didn’t pre-read the lab, and you know how to do it right. Or knowing to speak up when they are doing it wrong, instead of waiting for them to finish and then staying late to redo it properly.

●Sitting in front—Tell your son (or daughter), “Even if you can’t make yourself talk in class, sit near the front and look at the teacher or student who is talking and show interest.” If he agrees, I like for him to send a little note along with his LOA, saying something along the lines of, “Because Asperger’s causes communication deficits, I may be unable to speak much in class. I can answer direct questions if they are informational and not for my opinion and am given a few extra seconds to formulate the answer in my head.” Or whatever applies in your case. If you’re one of the lucky ones with a verbal kid, it might go something like, ” . . . I may have trouble stopping myself from talking too much. I may need you to remind me to give others a chance, or that I am allowed to only ask 3 questions per hour.” There’s an Aspie that is in several of my son’s classes that has this in his LOA. (My son is in the physics department, and of the 17 Aspies registered in the DSS office, 15 of them are in physics, math or some other field where they run into each other often.)

●Carrying a full load—Repeating, I know, but: remember, 12 hours is full time, and in all likelihood will be all he can stand, not because of the academic content, but because of the sheer daunting task of organizing those classes and the time to study for them. He won’t be in one building all day going straight from one class to the next, with his schedule practically the same every day, with a built in study hall. Has he ever experienced a “Monday-Wednesday-Friday” anything, in his life?

●Planning enough time—Homework won’t be like high school. Remember that old adage of “2 hours of work at home for each hour of class time”? That’s really a bare minimum. Depending on his major, and factors like how long things like writing essays take him, it could be much, much more. And again, no one will be reminding him to do it, or turn it in. He needs to establish good habits in grade school!


Succeeding with money

Your son needs to know how to

●write checks and balance a checkbook.

●use an ATM and know the difference between a debit card and a charge card.

●talk to tellers!

Some vital pieces of information he will need include

●That a check can be held for 3 days, in some cases, and that in many cities, 2PM is the next day at a bank. So if you deposit something at 2:01 on Friday, it’s the same as depositing it Monday morning and you could possibly not have access to it until Thursday! Friday, if that Monday happens to be a holiday, in which case the deposit is counted as having come in Tuesday morning. Even if your bank is open on Saturday, that is NOT a business day, and doesn’t count as one of your three days. Anything deposited on Saturday is counted as deposited on Monday. Of course, withdrawals of any kind are IMMEDIATELY charged to your account. This includes ATM transactions.

●That you can often get “cashier’s checks” or a “bank check” at the bank or credit union, for free. You can also get money orders there, and many post offices, and that either of those will be much cheaper than any retail place selling them.

●What is appropriate I.D., and what NOT to give out, like social security numbers except for a job, or school registration, or some other big, trusted institution, but not Wal-Mart unless you get a job there. Cashiers have no right to your SS#.

●Never to loan money to anyone. Never to give money to panhandlers, etc.

●How to use a credit card and manage that credit. Get him one as an authorized user on your charge, and take him places where he has to do the paying. He needs to know how to (or whether to) hand it over (look for swiping machines). If he’s worried about whether they even take credit cards, show him those lovely stickers with the different charge card logos that businesses put on their doors or over the register. Don’t fool yourself into thinking he won’t ever need one. Ever tried to rent a car without one?

●How to figure 15% in your head (or just take 2X the tax, in many states) and the importance of leaving a tip. Also that the tip can be added to the credit card. That money left on a table unattended in a restaurant is NOT lost.

Take your Aspie out in public and have him “practice” doing business transactions at a young age. Make him stand in line for movie tickets, and pay everyone’s way into places with an entrance fee. Make him interact with waitresses, order for himself, figure the tip and pay the restaurant bill; order a meal at McDonald’s. These are “simple” to us, but things he may never even have thought about, much less feel comfortable doing. In fact, have him try anything else you currently are doing for him.

Remember, your main job is to make yourself unnecessary. That’s every parent’s job, in my opinion, and even more true for those of us with kids that will need that extra shove out of the nest. The sad fact is that we won’t be here forever. Doing everything for them, and allowing them to reach adulthood without the necessary skills, is, in my opinion, tantamount to child abuse. Repeat over and over to yourself, “What else do I need to teach him? How can I make myself more and more unneeded?” Question yourself every time you do something for your Aspie instead of having him struggle with it, “Who will do this when I no longer can?” They’ll always be our babies, in some sense, but the greatest gift we can give them is the ability to succeed on their own. So teach, teach, practice, practice, and turn loose as soon as you can.

2 thoughts on “Asperger’s

  1. It’s always good to be appreciated. I sent this essay to someone and she posted it on her blog with the following sweet words for me:

    So in my search for information on how to help myself and my child get ready for this huge step, I posted some questions to the various autism groups that I belong to, and one woman wrote back with what I think is the absolute most useful email I have ever received in my life. I asked her if I could share it with all of you, and she said yes. Her son is in his sophomore year of college and she had done excellent things to prepare him for this transition. She also found out many things afterward that she wished she had done. I am sharing her exact words here in hopes that it will help you like I feel it is going to help me. Enjoy. Thank you, Sherron Ostrander.


  2. It is one of the most awesome things in the world to see a person who wants to communicate with someone to what they need rather than trying to mold them into what the person needs. You are a champion at this. Thank God you are my friend.


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