Set SMART goals, work with school experts

ABC’s new show The Good Doctor features a physician with autism spectrum disorder and savant skills whose ability to see the world differently makes him a brilliant surgeon. A hospital gives him a chance, and he ingeniously saves lives all while overcoming the obstacles from his autism.

While the show may be entertaining, it may not be realistic. Only a small percentage of people with autism spectrum disorder have extraordinary savant skills.

"Most teens on the autism spectrum won’t grow up to become surgeons," explained Thomas D. Challman, MD, medical director of Geisinger’s Autism & Developmental Medicine Institute. "But many can go on to work in jobs suited to their strengths and abilities if you create achievable vocational goals."

Make SMART goals

SMART goals can help you and your teen set realistic, effective and achievable goals no matter where they are on the autism spectrum.

SMART stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound.

"SMART goals are effective for teens with autism because they clearly outline expectations, time constraints and how to measure success," said Dr. Challman. "When making goals, take into account your teen’s current skill level so you can set your teen up for success."

Play to their strengths

"Since some goals may be out of reach for certain teens, it’s important to help them play to their strengths," said Dr. Challman. "This will make them happier and more successful overall. When making goals, make sure their goals reflect their desires—not just yours."

Start by focusing goals around their hobbies and interests. Ask them what they like and what they would want to do in the future. Find out where they see themselves in two, five or 10 years. If they’re struggling to come up with something, try giving them suggestions and gauge their reaction.

It’s possible their goals may be unrealistic; if this is the case, try recommending related ideas. For example, aspiring to be an astronaut may be unrealistic; however, you could suggest a closely related job that incorporates aspects of the planets and outer space. Use the phrase, "What about…?" to offer other suggestions such as, "What about working at a planetarium?"

Get help making and assessing goals

"If you or your teen are stuck when it comes to making goals, start by talking to the school or vocational coordinator. They can conduct pre-vocational and vocational skills assessments and make recommendations based on your teen’s interests and skills and those of other, similar teens," said Dr. Challman.

If you and your teen have already made SMART goals based on their strengths, ask the vocational coordinator to review the goals. Be sure to mention the types of support that typically work for your teen—like modeling, routine and rehearsal—to see how you can incorporate these needs into a job search.

Once you’ve set achievable goals and identified a job, your vocational coordinator can evaluate the job site to look for potential issues like high noise levels or staff ratio. With this information, they can coordinate with the employer to find ways to accommodate your teen on the job.

After you’ve identified an appropriate work site, the vocational coordinator can set up brief visits to a few different work settings to observe your child in the environment before they begin working.

After finding a position that fits, work with the vocational coordinator to set them up for success. Keep on-the-job training in short increments and try to schedule it before work hours. This helps them avoid distractions or triggers.

"Using a step-by-step process and leaning on a vocational coordinator with experience can help your teen find a rewarding work environment," said Dr. Challman.

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