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Raising Resilient Children: Parenting Your ASD or LD Child for Post-Secondary Success

by Christine Ryan, Ph.D. and Jenel Meier, M.S. of

Increasing numbers of students diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and other Learning Differences (LD) are enrolling in our nation's colleges and universities. Recent data from the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute (2015) and the National Center for Learning Disabilities (2014) states that young adults with ASD and LD are enrolling in some type of post-secondary education at rates of 36 and 67 percent respectively between leaving high school and their early 20s. As the diagnosis rates for ASD and LD continue to grow, the number of students participating in some type of post-secondary education is expected to significantly climb into the next decade and beyond.

Unfortunately, the college completion rate for these students is much lower than that of the general population. Without the necessary skills, supports, and services, only a small percentage of students with ASD and LD are successful on their first attempt at navigating the undergraduate academic environment. This sobering reality leaves many searching for answers on how to increase college student retention and graduation rates within the ASD and LD populations. One factor that has proven to have a great impact on student persistence in college is resilience. Students who are encouraged to develop their resiliency skills before attending college see positive effects in many areas including academic achievement, behavior, and long-lasting success in life (Hanson & Austin, 2003).

What is Resilience?
What is resilience and how does one become a resilient individual? There is no single definition of resilience. Over the years, researchers have defined resilience in many ways including:

  • the ability to recover or adjust easily to misfortune or change
  • the ability to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens
  • the ability to bounce back from difficult experiences
In general, resilience is what gives people the psychological strength to cope with stress, change, and adversity in their lives. Resilient individuals are those who experience successful outcomes despite unpleasant life experiences.

Resilience is not an inherent trait; everyone has the ability to become resilient. There are many factors which affect the development of resiliency skills. Broadly speaking, they can be broken down into three major categories: cognitive and behavioral; social and emotional; and organic and genetic (What is resiliency, n.d.). Each of these factors influences the others, positively or negatively, and together they shape how individuals develop their resiliency skills over time.

Developing Resiliency Skills
There is much that can be done at a young age to develop resiliency skills in children to prepare them to navigate the world as they grow. This is a dynamic process involving behaviors, thoughts and actions that are learned and developed over time in the family, school, and community environments. To facilitate the development of resiliency skills in children, it is imperative that parents and teachers help them to:

  • develop a healthy attitude towards mistakes and setbacks;
  • learn problem-solving, flexible thinking, and anxiety management strategies;
  • foster their strengths and interests instead of focusing on their deficits
The earlier children become familiar with the above skills and understand how to regularly incorporate them into their lives, the sooner they will learn how to independently solve problems, cope with challenges, and bounce back from disappointments - all things they must do on their own in college and when living independently.

The Parent's Role
As the primary caregivers for their children, parents have the principal role in building the foundation for resiliency skills during the early years of life. Through elementary school, parents must manage everyday activities while their children build basic skills and figure out the ways of the world. This role changes in middle school as parents should begin to manage less and allow their children to begin making decisions and solving problems on their own; prompting and guiding as necessary. Middle school is the ideal time for children to develop their resiliency skills; they are able to make mistakes in a safe and secure environment that will not have lasting effects on their lives. In the process, children will learn how to recover from their errors and realize they are capable of bouncing back from difficult experiences, all while having the full support of their families. It is when parents shield their children from adversity, especially parents of children with ASD and LD, this fundamental learning process is delayed and necessary life skills are not developed. The parental role should shift once again when children enter high school to one of monitoring and affirming decisions made to be sure the students' choices are positive and healthy.

Additionally, parents must allow and encourage their children to begin advocating for their own needs. It is often difficult for parents to step back and relinquish this role because it was their primary responsibility for so long. At this age, students should have an understanding of their diagnosis and be able to recognize their individual strengths and challenges. High school students, especially those with ASD and LD, must learn to advocate for themselves and practice their self-advocacy skills so they can effectively communicate their needs to others in the future. According to Lynn Lyons, psychotherapist and co-author of the book Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents: 7 Ways to Stop the Worry Cycle and Raise Courageous and Independent Children, a parent's job is to teach their children how to handle uncertainty and problem-solve. Lyons offers the following advice for parents on how to raise resilient children (Tartakovsky, 2015).

  • Don't accommodate your child's every need
  • Be a role model for resiliency
  • Let your kids make mistakes
  • Avoid eliminating all risk for your children
  • Teach your kids to problem solve
  • Don't provide your children with all the answers
  • Help your kids to manage their emotions
  • Teach your children concrete skills (social and executive functioning)
  • Set realistic expectations
  • Ask "how" questions instead of "why" questions
  • Avoid talking in catastrophic terms

The transition from high school to college can be especially difficult for students with ASD and LD. By the time they arrive on campus, many have experienced a multitude of difficulties throughout their lives - problems with self-esteem, anxiety, motivation, rigidity, self-advocacy, etc. Often, these past experiences have convinced them they are incapable of academic success. This, combined with inherent deficits in social and executive functioning skills, greatly contributes to these students becoming overwhelmed when faced with even the smallest of life's unexpected changes. If these students did not adequately develop their resiliency skills in their K-12 years, there is a high probability that when they encounter stressful situations or experience set-backs in college they will not know how to appropriately respond. This can have an immediate impact on their academic standing and also negatively affect their long-term self-confidence.

There is much that can be done prior to leaving high school to better prepare students with ASD and LD for post-secondary education and independent living. Starting at a young age, parents must create an environment to nurture the development of resilience in their children. As their kids grow, parents must continue to build the foundation for resilience by: teaching anxiety management and flexible thinking skills; empowering their children to problem-solve on their own; showing them how to learn from their mistakes; and fostering their strengths and interests rather than focusing on their challenges. Ultimately, students who have developed and practiced their resiliency skills before arriving on the college campus will have greater confidence in their ability to bounce back from difficult experiences and the wherewithal necessary to continue on their path with little disruption.

Cortiella, C. & Horowitz, S. H. (2014).The State of Learning Disabilities: Facts, Trends and Emerging Issues. New York: National Center for Learning Disabilities. Hanson, T. L., & Austin, G. A. (2003). Student health risks, resilience, and academic performance in California: Year 2 report, longitudinal analyses. Los Alamitos, CA: WestEd. Roux, A. M., Shattuck, P. T., Rast, J. E., Rava, J. A., & Anderson, K. A. (2015). National Autism Indicators Report: Transition into Young Adulthood. Philadelphia, PA: Life Course Outcomes Research Program, A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, Drexel University. Tartakovsky, M. (2015). 10 Tips For Raising Resilient Kids. Psych Central. Retrieved from What is resiliency? (n. d.) Retrieved from Wilson, R. & Lyons, L. (2013). Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents: 7 Ways to Stop the Worry Cycle and Raise Courageous and Independent Children. Deerfield Beach: Health Communications, Inc.

Dr. Christine Ryan is the Program Director at CIP Amherst. She has over 18 years of experience working with college students, and developing, implementing, and managing academic support programs to promote student growth and success.

Jenel Meier is the Head Student Advisor at CIP Amherst. She has been working in the field of special education in various capacities for the last 10 years.

Disclaimer: Internet Special Education Resources (ISER) provides this information in an effort to help parents find local special education professionals and resources. ISER does not recommend or endorse any particular special education referral source, special educational methodological bias, type of special education professional, or specific special education professional.

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