Adulting: Preparing Individuals with Autism

Mary E. McDonald, Ph.D., BCBA
Published in
5 min readJul 19, 2021


Photo by Timon Studler on Unsplash

The transition from adolescence to adulthood does not always receive as much attention as is needed. Often transition services are limited, leaving individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) without the level of preparation needed for “adulting”. Areas such as leisure skill development and vocational preference are often not fully addressed. We need to begin preparing individuals with ASD as early as possible for the future and place an emphasis on lifelong skills in our curriculum planning.

The overall goal is for the individual with ASD to have the best quality of life possible. There are a number of variables that become increasingly important as a child with autism moves through adolescence and then onto adulthood. There is a need to focus on the fading of systems and increasing independence and interdependence over time. During the transition period, it is critical that prompts and reinforcement systems be systematically faded to a degree that still provides support to the individual with autism but that also provides them with as much independence as possible.

So, what do we mean by “adulting?”

Adulting (v): to do grown-up things and hold responsibilities such as, a 9–5 job, a mortgage/rent, a car payment, or anything else that makes one think of grown-ups. * to behave in an adult manner; engage in activities associated with adulthood * to make someone behave like an adult; turn someone into an adult

Adulting is not a concern only for individuals with autism. In 2013, Kelly Williams Brown published a book entitled “Adulting: How to become a grown-up in 535 easy(ish) steps” in which she describes how anyone may move into adulthood by following this guide.

At this point, 1 in 54 children have autism and the prevalence is ever increasing. We understand that these children will someday soon become adults. Over the next 10-years, 500,000 children with autism will become adults and 90% of adults with autism are unemployed or underemployed.

We have an ethical responsibility to our clients. We should be working towards the best quality of life possible for the individuals we serve. It is also important that we are accountable to them. We must always assess and re-assess our instructional methods and delivery. We should be recording, reviewing, and analyzing data so that we can make the most informed decisions and support the people we serve.

There can be no overstating the need to make decisions based on the preferences and interests of individuals with autism. However, we must be sure to teaching them choice-making skills and attempt to give them the knowledge needed to be able to make the best decisions they can so that they can achieve the best quality of life possible.

There are so many skills to be taught, from ordering from a menu to being safe in the community. We need to conduct thorough and comprehensive assessments to then develop Individualized Education Plans (IEP’s) with goals that will assist in this complex transition period to adulthood. We need to be sure that we have provided the individual with as many skills as possible leading up to adulting.

Clearly, we have a lot of work to do. The first step is to identify areas of focus and to conduct assessments to develop goals. There are many areas of importance when moving toward adulthood. Here are a few of the most important areas to start with:

* Communication skills

* Self-help/ independent living skills

* Social skills

* Community awareness/ Community Participation

* Self-Advocacy

* Job skills

* Job readiness for employment

* Leisure skills

* Independence and interdependence

There are some skills that can be taught at an early age and I recommend thinking about transition and adulting at a young age so that the mindset is one of “not a minute wasted”.

Some skills that start at an early age but will be important later on might be toileting skills, following a schedule, waiting for a preferred item, tolerating being told no, remaining engaged, requesting needs, tolerating noisy or social situations. These skills are important for all adults but could also be worked on with any preschooler. So when I think about adulting, I am thinking about this already in a very young child with autism.

Why do I think it is so important to start early? A few reasons, it often takes individuals with autism longer to learn a skill, there can be difficulty generalizing a skill and you will have more time to work on other skills later on if you do not need to focus on skills already achieved such as tolerating social situations.

So, start early, teach the important skills along the way, and before you know it your child or your student will be adulting and you will know that you have helped to prepare him/ her for the next steps in this journey we call life.

Thank you for reading and I hope that I was able to provide you with some helpful information about individuals with autism. I have dedicated my life to working with individuals with autism and it is truly my life’s passion.

Originally published at

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Mary E. McDonald, Ph.D., BCBA

Professor @HofstraU, Researcher, Author, Autism Specialist, Behavior Analyst, and Speaker