Your child with autism spectrum disorder has one important goal: to become independent. Teaching and encouraging your teen how to set goals is a big step in achieving independence. However, the process of goal setting is tricky. What worked for you won't always work for teens or young adults on the autism spectrum. Here are some pitfalls to avoid if you want your teen to make goal-setting a regular habit in daily life.
Forcing your goals on your child.
Don’t try to make your priorities those of your child. No matter how much you think you know, it can be difficult to see the world through your teen's eyes. That being said, it is important that you not impose your own thoughts when it comes to goal setting.
Your kids have their own dreams and aspirations and expectations for themselves that may or may not match up with yours. Inspiring your teen to write goals that are meaningful and personal to them will motivate them to persevere in the pursuit of those goals later. Perseverance and persistence are important executive function skills and critical components of achieving goals.
Creating too many goals.
Becoming overwhelmed with too many goals can have detrimental effects. Your child with ASD experiences system overload, where too many demands eventually lead to less adaptability, disorganization, and less ability to manage emotions. You may recognize system overload as the dreaded "meltdown." Avoid system overload by limiting and prioritizing goals.
Your teen may want to tackle all sorts of goals. Set limitations and priorities early in the process to model the importance of not becoming overwhelmed. Consider your child's schedule and other demands when setting the correct number of goals.
Goal setting and goal pursuits build resiliency. Resiliency takes time and practice to develop. Your child will initially have limited energy reserves to pursue goals and attend to daily demands. When their serves are tapped, they will have less ability to focus, make decisions, organize, plan, adapt to change, and manage emotions. They need time to rest, engage in fun hobbies, and not have to exert effort thinking about complex activities. Set a small number of goals to build in time for rest.
Being too bossy or too absent.
Don't be too bossy. You might think that being a bit of a drill sergeant is the best way to get your child to focus on writing goals, but it's not. Goal persistence is an executive function skill that must be taught. Provide structure and support initially. Talk to your child about the importance of setting goals and model your process for writing goals. In time, gradually fade your support as your child develops independent skills to set goals.
Don't be too absent. Goal writing is a skill that must be taught. Think about the adults you know that never set goals. Become a part of your child's goal-setting process to model behavior, recommend supports, and provide ideas.
Focusing entirely on the outcome and ignoring the process.
The difference between those who are successful and those who are not is that the former focus on the journey, not the destination. They recognize that life is a process and not an event, so they're always ready for whatever comes their way.
The ability to set goals and persist towards goals is an executive function skill that leads to higher levels of independence. Your child must be taught this skill. Your child needs supervised practice in developing the skill of goalsetting. The process is as important as the outcome.
Creating goals and pursuing them build resilience. Resilience is a critical skill for independence in adult life. Through the process of writing goals, your child will learn about priorities, time management, the importance of sleep and rest, and organization.
Remember, when it comes to setting goals for the kids in your life, you want to avoid making them into a project. Instead, focus on what you can do now and throughout this process—and how you can guide them through it. That way, they can learn from their mistakes, grow as individuals, and let their own hopes and dreams guide them along the way!
Want more information? Check out The Breakaway: A Parent’s Guide to Transitioning the Autistic and Twice Exceptional Adolescent into Adulthood, by Thomas W. Welch, Psy.D.