Teens with autism struggle with becoming more independent and making decisions on their own. They are more likely to reject help and act impulsively or self-destructively or rely on caretakers to continue to meet their needs. Neither of these paths are effective in helping teens with autism live healthy, independent, and productive lives. While it is hard for families to shift their role as their teen grows up, becoming more independent is a process. Using an autonomy development model, we work with families to help their child become more independent, learn social skills, and find the motivation to succeed one step at a time.
What is Autonomy?
Autonomy refers to making independent decisions regarding managing emotions, resolving conflict, and making personal goals. According to Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development, autonomy is the opposite of experiencing shame and self-doubt about one’s ability to make positive, healthy choices. It answers the question: can I do things myself or am I reliant on the help of others? Although many teens with autism struggle with social skills, understanding the bigger picture, and executive functioning skills related to planning ahead and staying organized, we believe that every teen has unique strengths and needs.
While many teens, including teens on the autism spectrum, crave independence, that does not mean that we just set them out on their own. With the right level of support, they are prepared to make more independent informed decisions and move from relying on caretakers to using others as a resource. The Autonomy Development Model provides strategies to move young adults towards a more independent life. It is important to work with clinical professionals who can help your family determine what kind of support your teen may need as they create goals and strategies for reaching those goals that can best set them up for success. New Focus is more than a residential school setting. Students experience development through various opportunities designed to challenge. Life skills education, exposure to new experiences, and practicing concepts in real-life settings allows for greater independence in our students.
Stages of the Autonomy Development Model:
The Treatment Team Approach side represents how the Autonomy Development Model changes and morphs as the student gains more autonomy. Our team’s role in the student’s autonomy lessens as the autonomy of the student grows and develops.
- Caretaker: Most students who come to New Focus Academy struggle with unhealthy behaviors and knowing how to understand and utilize help offered to them. Our treatment team takes on the role of caretakers by providing immediate feedback and support.
- Awareness: Through interviews and initial assessments, we help identify areas students need to work on and strengths they have that will prepare them to take on these challenges.
- Targeting: After we have created a personalized treatment plan for each student, we encourage them to play an active role in creating personal goals and help them find the motivation to achieve them.
- Guide: As students demonstrate the ability to set goals and make decisions for themselves, the treatment team takes a step back. They are there to offer support and give feedback, but they also encourage students to learn from experiences and recognize the consequences of their actions. They learn from experimenting and practicing to adapt emotionally and socially to daily life.
- Strategies: We work closely with students to identify which strategies will best support them as they overcome challenges.
- Implement: Students practice relational and emotional regulation skills they’ve learned and apply them to situations they experience as staff continue to evaluate how to best support them.
- Resources: As students make more of their decisions and practice autonomy, the treatment team focuses on providing them with the resources necessary to help them live independently and ensuring that they continue to have the support they need once they transition home.
- Fluent: The more autonomy students gain, they develop improved social-emotional fluency that will help them navigate future challenges.
Learning Life Skills in a Residential Treatment Setting
Developing life skills is an important part of any adolescent’s development. As parents, we want to give our children a strong foundation that they can build on when they go out into the world on their own. But for some teens on the autism spectrum, coaching at home may not be enough. These students may benefit from enrolling in a residential treatment program like New Focus Academy.
If your child struggles with high-functioning autism spectrum disorder or other neurodevelopmental issues, you may worry if your son or daughter can develop meaningful relationships and learn life skills to live independently. In addition, many children with these challenges have low-self esteem and feel isolated from others in their peer group. New Focus Academy helps students gain the skills necessary for greater independence and success. Students engage in educational, experiential, vocational, and social training based on their unique abilities and needs. Our clinically sophisticated approach to helping students build independence and emotional resilience provides opportunities for them to grow and thrive.
A cornerstone of independent living is the ability to care for one’s self. New Focus students learn and practice the life skills they need to succeed. Based on a student’s individual needs, life skills are taught and applied through various experiential activities. Some life skills include:
- Making healthy food and activity choices: When young adults begin to experience more freedom, they are given more choices that affect their physical health as well. When they can buy their own lunch in the cafeteria, will they choose something balanced and healthy or will they go for ice cream and a cookie for their meal? It is not uncommon for teens to test these boundaries, but it is also important for them to understand how those choices can affect their physical health. Teaching students how to make a balanced meal or incorporate physical activity into their day can help them feel happier and healthier overall.
- Using transportation: Understanding and using different forms of transportation is an important part of independence. For some students, this may include becoming familiar with bus routes and schedules, for others, it may be learning how to buy a subway pass or the basics of car maintenance. Without a reliable means of transportation, young adults remain dependent on caregivers to get them to school, work, or even just spending time with friends. Becoming comfortable with modes of transportation helps young adults feel confident in navigating their world.
- Self-care and hygiene: Whether they are looking to meet new friends or applying for a job, practicing self-care and healthy hygiene sets young adults up for success. Students may practice previously learned skills with less and less supervision or benefit from visual or written aides to help them remember their routine.
- Vocational skills: Young children think about what they will be when they “grow up”. But for many young adults, there is a stumbling block when it comes to figuring out how they can actually achieve those goals. Working on vocational skills can help students figure out where their interests lie and how they can gain experience in those fields. Young adults can also learn how to create a resume for applying for a job and practice interviewing skills and proper attire.
- Personal Safety: Safety skills are particularly important for teens on the spectrum. If your child struggles with reading social cues or is particularly trusting, it can be scary to think about them out in the world on their own. Safety skills can include understanding how to safely cross the road using lights and signals and knowing how to call home or where to go for help if they are lost or feel unsafe.
Every student has specific goals and objectives to practice with an assigned coach. Objectives are evaluated and refined as the student progresses through the program. After several months as a resident at New Focus Academy, boys between 15 and 18 have the option to transition to the Autonomy House, where they have additional program privileges and more opportunities for independence. While living at Autonomy House, the focus of treatment becomes how to prepare for independent living and success later in life when they are a college student or employee at a company, rather than developing basic social skills and emotional intelligence needed to thrive in high school. Students who transition to the Autonomy House have demonstrated increased Social-Emotional Fluency and are prepared to practice the skills they’ve learned in the community.
New Focus Academy Can Help
Many of our students’ parents worry about their child’s ability to make healthy decisions and lead independent lives. Helping students reach their highest level of autonomy motivated John Webb and Dr. Brandon Park to develop the Autonomy Development Model. The model combines the student’s progression through the stages of autonomy with the treatment team’s changing approach as we work together to increase the student’s autonomy and quality of life.
New Focus Academy is a residential treatment center for boys ages 12-18 who struggle with autism spectrum disorder or other neurodevelopmental disorders. The program utilizes a strengths-based approach and positive reinforcement to increase the student’s self-esteem and independence. The skills they learn at New Focus will help them learn to have positive social interaction with peers and their families, better organizational skills, and to improve their self-management skills. Students have a variety of engaging opportunities to gain the confidence they need to foster and maintain healthy relationships and lifestyle habits. We can help your family today!
Contact us at (435) 740-8599 to learn more about how we encourage teens to become more independent.