There are approximately one million people living with autism in the United States today. By the year 2050, it is predicted that this number will increase fivefold, with 1.7 million of these people being adults. In her book, Autism Solutions: How to Create a Healthy and Meaningful Life for Your Child, autism expert Dr. Ricki Robinson stresses the importance of thinking differently about how to help children with autism follow their dreams by clarifying their interests. Once a child’s interest is discovered and fostered, by the time they become an adult, they feel like a productive member of society. They begin having goals and objectives for themselves, not based on expectations of success other people place upon them.
“You have to step back from the IEP kind of stuff where you’re micromanaging what happens during the day,” Dr. Robinson explains. “Look at the big picture and say, have we filled in all the gaps to what really would become a meaningful life?” She sees her role as “the quarterback of the team,” keeping everyone’s eyes on the prize by figuring out the key elements to providing for a child to someday have a future. “The number one concern for all parents is their child’s future,” says Dr. Robinson. “Unless you’re going to have a career in mathematics, it’s not about doing math. It’s about having friends, fitting into the community, finding out what your dream is and being able to do what you need to do to follow your dream.”
The particularly interesting thing about children with autism is that their interests can often be known at a young age, and once a child finds his interest, he remains consistent. With the gift of time, Dr. Robinson talks about how it is possible to match the educational needs of kids with autism to their interests and therefore develop the skills they need for the future. She mentions a boy who was nonverbal and getting ready to begin his junior year of high school. He said, “I’m not going to go.” When she asked him why, he replied, “There’s nothing there that I like.” When she prodded him for what he loved to think about, the boy replied, “Bees.” Bees were his passion in life. He wanted to be a beekeeper. Dr. Robinson said, “All right. We can focus an entire year of high school around bees.” He learned math, science, and literature all within the context of bees and beekeeping. “I asked his mom, are you ready for this? Because this is a career,” she says.
“The whole idea behind the book was to give parents and families of individuals with autism hope and help,” says Dr. Robinson, “But it needs to be the whole village here.” She makes the point that parents who raise children with special needs tend to be exhausted both mentally and physically—and often financially—by the time these kids reach adulthood. This is why an important part of helping your child reach his or her dreams is to reach out to the community.
Four out of five individuals with autism are male. As the boys become teenagers, Dr. Robinson asks, what are their needs? They need models of male teen behavior. In her practice, she developed a buddy system to help families find volunteer guys who emulate good behavior in the community. These volunteers develop a friendship with the boys based on their interests and hang out or play sports with them. Boys with autism should be in a group of like-minded males, which accomplishes two things: it socializes the adolescent male and it gives parents the opportunity to experience what it is like to have a more typical teen and “let go” a little bit.
It does not matter how challenged the child is. “My most challenged kid that I’ve ever seen in my 20 years has a team of six buddies,” says Dr. Robinson. “He’s now in his mid-20s, and it’s the team who really cares for him, with his mother on the outskirts consulting with the team. It’s the team who provides the daily interaction in his activities and his job.” This young man’s interest is in cooking. He and his buddies make lunches and deliver them to several businesses in Pasadena as part of a business he started called Christopher’s Cuisine. They make the menus, Christopher supervises what they need in the store, he makes everything and then delivers it. In order to be one of his select businesses, the people in the business have to interact with Christopher. “This is a boy who is very nonverbal, with many sensory and medical issues. If he can do it, anybody can,” Dr. Robinson says. “The key is to know your child as an individual. It’s not one size fits all.”