Integrating Young Adults with Asperger Syndrome with Typically Developing Peers: An Essential Step in the Transition to Independence
Kyle Avery, Ramapo for Children
For many young adults on the spectrum, especially those with Asperger Syndrome, comfortable interaction with typically developing peers is more a dream than a reality. Yet when they transition to college or the work force, the ability to socialize becomes a prerequisite for success. To grow their social and emotional skills, these young adults need safe opportunities to interact with typically developing peers. This is why Ramapo for Children’s Staff Assistant Experience provides an integrated, inclusive environment to help young adults with social, emotional, or learning challenges transition to independence.
Roadblocks on the Path to Independence
Regardless of challenges, all youth seek the same things: to learn, have friends, feel valued, and experience success. Once high school ends, the most common paths to those goals are college or work. But teens with autism spectrum disorders like Asperger Syndrome can experience alienation instead of achievement on these paths due to their characteristic lag in social skills. Some colleges offer programs that support young adults with special needs, but their focus is primarily academic and does little to mitigate the discomfort that those with social and emotional challenges face in the less structured campus environment. Offices and work environments are even less forgiving, and poor social skills are often cited as a primary source of difficulties when young adults with special needs enter the workplace.
The greatest obstacle between the young adults who experience these setbacks and their ability to align their behaviors with their aspirations is the opportunity to practice social situations. In an unstructured environment, entering conversations can be a terrifying and confidence-destroying prospect, and real-time debriefing either is not an option or comes in the form of admonishment instead of support. The only way to improve social skills is to repeatedly take part in interactions until they become part of daily routine. Additionally, receiving constructive feedback based on those interactions is a great, underutilized tool to supportively help young adults improve their communication skills, recognize their strengths and weaknesses, and work to address them. Ramapo for Children takes the trepidation out of social interaction by fully immersing young adults with their typically developing peers and providing a safe space where mistakes and missteps become opportunities for improvement.
The Staff Assistant Experience: Supporting Young Adults in Transition
The Staff Assistant Experience is a residential transition-to-independence program for young adults with social, emotional, or learning challenges. The program offers participants an opportunity to improve and reinforce interpersonal, independent living, and job skills, build resilience and determination, and establish a future orientation. The program, based at Ramapo for Children’s Rhinebeck campus, is designed for young adults ages 18 to 25 who seek self-sufficiency and independence, but who have struggled in other, less supportive environments.
The Staff Assistant Experience Helps Participants Develop:
· Independent Living Skills—Ramapo provides coaching and instruction on such tasks as meal planning, shopping, cooking, cleaning, and household budgeting.
· Social Skills—Ramapo provides a variety of social opportunities and special community events that foster positive interactions and encourage friendships.
· Job Skills—Ramapo provides meaningful work opportunities to teach universally applicable vocational skills and help Staff Assistants manage relationships in the workplace.
Roommates, Job Coaches, Mentors: Immersion with Typically Developing Peers
The unique blending of social, work, and home life with typically developing peers is a hallmark of SAE. Participants live and work alongside these peers, who are their coworkers, colleagues, mentors, roommates, and friends. Being fully immersed with understanding and supportive peers who have greater social and emotional aptitude enables participants to gain comfort in social situations and provides ample opportunity to practice skill building. Participants receive immediate constructive feedback on social and professional development that recognizes their strengths and helps them improve their weaknesses. As one Staff Assistant noted about his experience on campus, “No one judges me, because everyone, kids and staff alike, are here to improve their skills and learn new things.” With everyone on the way to new achievements, missteps are taken in stride.
Building Social and Emotional Confidence One Day at a Time
These one-on-one interactions and skill support, along with the structured and inclusive environment, have helped Staff Assistants gain skills in everything from becoming more open-minded and starting conversations with peers, to slowing down and enunciating speech to facilitate conversations. With social and emotional skills broken down into achievable tasks, then modeled and reinforced by peers, everyday interactions that were once terrifying become manageable for Staff Assistants. The ease they gain on campus is directly applicable to future experiences in the workforce, higher education, or simply the everyday opportunities that enrich a young adult’s life.
Just as importantly, the Staff Assistant Experience helps participants feel like a part of a team in a way they never have before. With their colleagues and roommates, they’re “just one of the guys,” a member of the Ramapo family who can joke around with colleagues and have meaningful conversations with roommates without fear of rejection. The opportunity to be seen not as a diagnosis but as a friend and peer is what makes the Staff Assistant Experience work, and it’s what guides the Staff Assistants to new heights of independence and aptitude.
In addition to the Staff Assistant Experience, Ramapo for Children provides a residential summer camp for children ages 6 to 16 who are affected by social, emotional, or learning challenges; year-round retreats for young people, educators, and other community-based organizations; and adult training programs. For more information about Ramapo for Children or the Staff Assistant Experience, please visit www.ramapoforchildren.org or contact Kyle Avery at (646) 588-2308 or firstname.lastname@example.org.