Transition to Adulthood: Tips Learned on the Journey

As a parent once said of the transitioning to adulthood stage of life, “So much to do and so little time to get it done.” Isn’t that the truth! When my son was diagnosed with autism at 3 ½ years of age, the list of things that needed to be set in motion seemed overwhelming, and as your child grows closer to adulthood, this only intensifies. As a parent who has been there, I’d like to share some insights that have helped me and my family throughout the years.

A financial planner once asked a surprising question: “When do you want to retire from caregiving?” Until that moment, I had never thought about it. Would it really come down to me making a choice in this matter? Future planning took on a whole new look and meaning.

Just as my father retired, he was faced with having to care for grandchildren, parents, in-laws, etc. I have observed him through the years get a great deal accomplished – perhaps it was his Marine training. He plowed through a tremendous number of tasks each day, all the while protecting the balance in his life, anticipating situations, and being pro-active.

The biggest encouragement we received from professionals and other families was to create a routine and be consistent in its application. We implemented schedules and visuals, slowed things down, and became purposeful in what we did and how we did it.


What are you trying to accomplish right now?

Guess what I have learned about my spontaneous, free-spirited life-style? The same emphasis on routines and schedules that worked for our child with autism didn’t turn out so bad for the rest of us to follow, either. Prioritization became the new focus. Some hurdles were easy, others were a struggle, and some I’m still working on. I encourage you to find what works for you, celebrate the successes, and persevere in those areas that are most difficult.

Now my son is a young adult. Although we continue to use written schedules and goals, they are more sophisticated and age-appropriate. Yet teaching him how to manage his time is often a re-emphasis of the basics:

  • When thinking of competitive employment opportunities, how can he use his time and resources effectively and efficiently?
  • Can he identify or set clear priorities of tasks to accomplish? Probably not yet without help or support.
  • Can he “hustle” up when needed?
  • Does he understand his job?
  • Can he follow a written schedule or a list of goals? What objectives are identified, and how will progress be measured?
  • Does he have a simple system in place that meets the need to keep him on task and organized? Does he consistently use it?

Be aware, practice skills in as many safe and supportive settings as possible, and allow time for your child to process and respond to directions or new tasks. Be prepared to take extra time to allow independence in task completion even during your busy times. Easy to say, hard to do.


Teach your child

  • Create and provide ample opportunities for your child to make choices.
  • Practice problem-solving.
  • Manage transitions. Learn to handle interruptions or changes in schedules, tasks, etc.
  • Learn to “go with the flow.”
  • Self-regulation – chewing gum, squeezing a stress ball, for example.
  • Talk to your child about how you managed difficult or stressful situations in the past.
  • Scripting for peaceful, positive mindset:
    • “I am calm.”
    • “This may be difficult, but I can do it.”
  • Listen to relaxing music, rain sounds, white noise – headphones are great here.
  • Exercise: Build stamina, prepare both body and mind. It’s also a great stress-reliever.
  • Find a calming area.
  • Think before you act.
  • Explore connections to the community.


What happens when it all goes wrong?

  • Defuse and deal with problems/issues at hand head-on. Don’t let the stress of things overwhelm you. Don’t wallow in what’s wrong, what is not working, or what can’t be fixed.
  • Accept that some things are out of our control.
  • Develop or improve your stress-management skills.
  • Take slow, deep breaths to relax.
  • Count to 20 or 100. Sometimes it may be necessary to count again. And again.
  • Take a short walk or a short break from whatever the stressful task or situation.
  • Be kind to yourself.


Helpful hints

  • Start with the basics: Get up and get ready for the day, make your bed, and eat a healthy breakfast.
  • Create a routine.
  • Do what you say you will do, or go and tell the person you promised why not.
  • Do your least favorite task first before doing what you enjoy.
  • Be willing to take on risks; move out of your comfort zone.
  • Sacrifice, toughness, discipline: these are not bad words.
  • Be pro-active; prepare and take necessary steps now instead of being reactive.
  • Take care of yourself!
  • Stay connected. You don’t need to go it alone. Are you a spiritual person? Do you have family and friends? Surround yourself with as many positive, supportive folks and minimize the negative influences. Seek out and make time for others who bring peace and joy.
  • Be sure to schedule formal break times into your day when possible.
  • Do things that matter.
  • Live your life. Do the things you enjoy. Don’t stop having fun. Do you have hobbies or special interests? If not, explore your options. My brother-in-law once asked me years ago what I liked to do for fun. And he gently kept asking me. It took me over two years to be able to answer him.
  • Celebrate the small steps.


Best things I’ve learned to do

  • Separate the issue from the individual. Work the problem – don’t make it personal.
  • Expedite when necessary. It’s okay to ask for help.
  • Redefine “success.” Forget perfection. Assess, reassess, adjust, and be realistic.
  • Keep your sense of humor.


Set goals, but realize that life with autism is a journey. Enjoy the trip and don’t obsess about the destination.


Learn more

ASNC online resources on transitioning to adulthood

ECAC: Transition to Adulthood

Ten Tips That May Help Ease Your Child’s Transition to Adulthood

Coming of Age: Autism and the Transition to Adulthood

A Guide to Transitioning to Adulthood


Jan Combs can be reached at or 919-865-5081.


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