Autism Celebration 2012: Helping Autistic Kids Become Stellar Future Adults by Connie Sokol

Connie and her son.

 I remember sitting in church with my son who was about 18 months old. An older woman came up, played with him for a few minutes, then turned to me and said something like, "He’s a good little boy, now. Wait until he hits two." Shocked, I simply smiled and thought once again, old women can be annoying.

And then he hit two. As his behavior became more difficult, we sought more doctors’ advice. Most played the ADHD key, some depression, some anxiety. We spent our days dealing with difficult mental, emotional, and physical issues, and trying various meds but nothing took. As a mother, I felt something was missing in the diagnosis and kept looking for the click. Finally, we found a specialist and the right diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome.

He was seven.

Now he is 18. He just finished his first semester of college at BYU-Idaho—doing his own laundry, meals (even nutritious ones), schedule, and in general making his own life happen. He is now preparing to serve a full-time LDS service mission in June. I can't explain the joy I feel watching him serve his brothers and sisters, play with them in a dug out snow slide, or offer to go do grocery shopping (and do a better job than I).

How did we get from terrible twos to ecstatic 18? I'm no expert and have zero advice. But here are a few things that worked for us.

1. A solid relationship with mom. In speaking with different doctors they have told me this is number one for Aspies (their term). A connected, healthy, positive relationship is key for these kids to create connection, understand social savvy, and trust the often foreign information they're learning. Plenty of positive is huge—writing a list of the great things about your child is helpful. Or “praise first”—before sharing a to-do or correction, praise first what a specific thing they’ve done well that day.

2. Explain their diagnosis and skills they need to learn. Over the years when Ben starts "cycling"—our word for his predictable behaviors in certain situations—we point out what’s happening. When he gets overstimulated, we remind him to take a personal time out. When he gets too "factoid" for 10 or more minutes (our phrase for endless fact-telling) I'll simply say, "That's two facts you've shared, now I need a connecting question." He'll stop and say, "Oh yeah, how's your day?"  Using real-time situations and a few years of homeschooling, I have spent time identifying social cues, hygiene, habits, and how other people perceive him in conversations. Ultimately, these brief but timely teaching moments have helped him develop greater self-confidence and social smarts.

3. Use structure. This is key. As a young child, it was vital to transition him at least 5 to 15 minutes before moving to a new activity, leaving to do errands, or getting ready for bed, etc. Having regular times of the day for bath, reading, meals, play time, were all crucial in helping him not only establish routines but for them to become so natural he could focus on newer learning.   

4. Wisely use a combination of eastern and western medicine. For a long while our son couldn't regulate his sleep. We tried various suggestions from doctors—sleep hygiene, regular rituals, Benadryl, and more. My husband felt it had to do with high cortisol levels (leaving him tired but wired at night) and found a Chinese adrenal herb that has been a lifesaver. Now he can sleep regularly and generally fully. Acupuncture has also helped. We’ve combined eastern methods with western medicines—finally finding two drugs that help to bridge his neural and emotional gaps. But we’ve kept him on the lowest possible dose and always after working on the behavioral practices first (and combining them with medicines after). 

5. Teach him to think like a future adult. We encourage him to see himself as a functioning adult. When he first started working with my husband Dave on a construction site, Dave would find Ben sleeping under a truck. Now he actually helps him install hardwood floors. It’s bit by bit, increasing skills and awareness, giving the big picture all the time of where they’re going.

6. Help him/her find something to “grab onto”. Michael Landon wasn’t always successful director and Pa Ingalls. He came from an abusive home and in high school had facial tics and made involuntary gulping sounds. But one day in PE he threw a javelin 30 feet farther than anyone else and he says, “I found something I could grab onto. And I grabbed.” He built his success on that one discovery. Our son loved Legos, then fiddling with videos, which morphed into stop-motion video movie making. We found a local contest, which he entered and won “Most Creative” and $500. That gave bolstered his confidence to try other events and talents.

7. He’s part of a family. We understand his Asperger ways. And yet, we need him to stretch socially. So we have him play games, go bowling with us, make and eat dinner together, and in general spend a good amount of time with seven other people in his family. We remind him he’s as special as everyone else and he’s not the only one who needs attention. This helps him understand he can’t consume our attention constantly. He’s learned to walk into a room and instead of starting to speak about his interests, he now first asks, “Is this a good time?”
It all works. Recently my husband and I celebrated our 20th anniversary in New York City. Ben supervised the children, including playtime, meals, laundry, errands, and cleaning the house. That’s what I call a mama paycheck. Though it’s taken many years and untold energy, the fruits of our labors are now sweet.

How do you help your child prepare for the future?

 Connie Sokol is the mother of six—expecting her seventh—and just released Motherhood Matters: Joyful Reminders of the Divinity, Reality, and Rewards of Motherhood. She is also a presenter, former TV and radio host, and author of several other books. For tips, columns, and products visit

Would you like to comment?

Vcky13 said...

Wow, just wow. Our daughter is a little more profoundly affected than Asperger's, so sometimes I imagine a bleak future, wherein we are having the same conversations in twenty years and I am still helping her get to the bathroom in time. This post was really amazing and hopeful. Thank you for sharing.

Janice said...

This is a wonderful post.

Shelli said...

Connie, what a great post! You are an inspiration to many who struggle with this situation. Thank you for sharing what has worked for you!

Taffy said...

Excellent post, Connie! Any mother can learn to help her children the way you have! THANK YOU!

Joan Sowards said...

Very interesting comments. Thank you for helping us all understand a little better.

Tanya Parker Mills said...

Wow, Connie. We'll have to get together at the next conference or something to compare notes. I cannot even imagine leaving Jason alone for a weekend, let alone leaving him in charge of five other kids. Your advice is invaluable!

Marcella said...

A household becomes extraordinary with strong and wise moms like you Connie. Building a healthy and positive relationship is one of the best cure to any problem at home.

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