Preparing for Life’s Transitions

Jessica Sales Cohen, J.D.

Jessica Sales Cohen, J.D.

About the Author

Jessica Sales Cohen, J.D., is the Associate Director of the LifeMAP Program at AANE and is also a LifeMAP coach. She obtained her B.S.B.A. from Boston University and her J.D. from Northeastern University, and has extensive experience advising clients in matters involving disability discrimination, employment, and special education.  Jessica also has significant personal experience with Autistic profile.

Throughout the lifespan, we are all faced with many different kinds of transitions in all areas of our lives. Whether it is moving through different educational stages, beginning or changing employment, entering into friendships or romantic relationships, or moving into independent or supported living environments, all require some level of executive functioning, social skills, emotional regulation, and general flexibility. For Autistic individuals, developing these skills and successfully navigating certain transitions may require additional support with counselors or life coaches. For instance, AANE’s LifeMAP coaches meet clients where they are and work on these skills in the context of their clients’ lives to ensure that they are developing strategies to meet their individual needs and circumstances.

Self-Discovery and Goal Setting

The first step in supporting any Autistic client through a transition is to work with that individual to help them identify their needs and strengths, as well as their hopes and fears. This process sometimes shows when the client’s thoughts about the worst case and the reality of the worst case are not aligned. One LifeMAP coach reflected, “We have clients who enter ‘intentional’ and ‘unintentional’ transitions. From the beginning of the conversation, we start prepping with the ‘why’ and the ‘how.’ We talk about the positive aspects that can help the client keep their eyes on the prize. We then do a ‘worst fears’ overview and usually a reality check on how likely – or not – the feared events are to happen. We finally develop strategies, especially self-advocacy and identifying an ally, for the most likely obstacles.”

This process allows clients to establish their own goals and develop a plan with their coach’s support. To see how this might be put into practice, let’s use an example of finding an apartment for the first time. A person on the spectrum may be overwhelmed by the process of finding a new place that fits their needs. A coach can help them break down the process into steps, list their priorities, and define what their concerns are. If the client wants a quiet, shared apartment, close to public transportation, and near locations they visit often, for example, but they are concerned they won’t know how to find a compatible roommate, a coach might help them rank their list of desired features and identify what is a necessity and what features might be compromised. The coach could assist them in drafting a list of questions to ask a potential roommate that would help find a good match. Together they could explore different online platforms, message boards, and other materials to help with the apartment hunting process.

No matter the type of transition, having support when needed is incredibly helpful. As one of our LifeMAP coaches said, “As the transition begins, we might have to add brief check-ins to share successes, re-adjust expectations, and trouble-shoot issues early on.” This coach-client connection gives the client a way to keep things on track and address unexpected issues, while providing a sounding board to modify the plan if necessary.

Routine and Flexibility

Developing a plan to strategically sequence a set of activities can help to serve as a “roadmap” towards reaching a transition goal. For Autistic individuals, there can be a strong need for predictability. It is important to consider keeping routines consistent, but flexible. Where Autistic individuals may have difficulty shifting attention or altering patterns of behavior and may experience high levels of anxiety around change, a degree of consistency can be very important in facing a transition. It is important for coaches to work with clients to establish a comfortable routine while developing a multi-step process to reach transition goals.

Tools for Setting Goals

A clear and precise goal is necessary when structuring a plan for transitioning.  Coaches can use visual aids such as visual schedules, photos, and timelines to help their clients identify which transition goals they want to achieve and foster independence. Technology can also be very useful, and there are many apps available that can help to keep organized, reduce anxiety, assist in keeping schedules, support varied communication styles, and boost confidence. Whether it involves transitioning from childhood to adulthood or simply dealing with life’s everyday challenges, apps can be useful tools for anyone journeying from one stage of life to another.

Realistic Expectations

Another important factor to consider is determining how long a transition may take and setting realistic expectations. By forging a trusting relationship and encouraging clients to think through plans and options, coaches can encourage their clients to work towards realistic, attainable outcomes.

It is important to remember that what will work best for one individual transitioning from one significant life stage to another may not be appropriate for another individual facing similar challenges. We all have distinctive styles of progressing through the various stages of life. By supporting clients in creating individualized plans tailored to their unique needs, forming well thought-out and definitive strategies, building self-advocacy skills, and developing social and communication skills, coaching can assist clients through all of life’s transitions

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