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Autism and STEM: Am I Ready for the College Experience? What Are My Goals?

Are you ready for college? In this post, STEM community college student Elinore Alms leads you through important considerations about how to assess your interests and goals. This will help you find the best academic and professional fit for your future. It can be easy to get so caught up thinking about college that you forget to really stop and assess your strengths, weaknesses, and current goals. This post will help you ensure you’re making strategic decisions that set you up for success from the get-go.

Major and Career Considerations for your Person-centered Plan

Every prospective college student takes some time to reflect on their readiness before finally starting school. Most students are already thinking about what major they plan on declaring (usually no later than junior year in college). This can be a real dilemma–college-age teens usually don’t have enough experience to be passionate about a particular subject. Some people find that it’s easier to examine with a top-down approach. First, we will introduce strategies for building a support system, and then go into considerations for occupational goals. After answering these questions for yourself, do you think you’re suited to college, trade school, or another path? Is there a major or career type that sticks out to you? Do you have enough support? Are you going to need to connect with new people? These are all good thoughts to bring up to your parents and school counselors.

What is Person-centered Planning?

Robust support systems provide care and assistance to all types of people every day. Without our social systems, we would be unable to perform the complex tasks required to keep the world powered and people satiated. No teen could go to college if we did not first find several construction workers to build a room, several teachers to guide students, several authors to assemble complex and thoughtful textbooks, and so on.

Person-Centered Planning (PCP) is a group of processes designed to help disabled persons reach their full potential in the context of our society and with an emphasis on the “focus person.” It is widely regarded as a tool for self-advocacy. PCP has successfully eased the transition to adulthood for many autistic adolescents.

There are five major steps to PCP. First, the student and support team will come together to establish their roles. They will develop a profile of the student including history, medical needs, critical relationships, etc. The quality of life of the focus person is assessed, and their preferences are added to the profile as well. Then, it’s time to figure out goals, obstacles, and strategies for overcoming those obstacles.

When the profile and goals are completed, the plan may be put into action. The focus person and support members should take note of any unforeseen challenges. All members must be committed to meeting regularly to address these challenges. Effective support members continue to listen to the focus person and edit the plan accordingly.

For more information on PCP, please refer to Cornell University’s Person-Centered Planning Education Site. Support members should be people who are close to the situation and/or have expertise in a specific area. Some resources you can reach out to for additional support include College Autism Network and The Arc. These are advocacy and vocational training services for autistic and otherwise disabled adults.

Motivations and Needs

Motivations are reasons people do things. “Needs” are often associated with primal needs such as food and shelter, but everyone has different challenges and needs. Autistic students must define obvious needs, such as academic and transportation accommodations. It is also beneficial to measure more nuanced needs such as independence and social living. Motivations help guide the plan to meet the needs of the focus person. For example, if a student feels that career stability and low stress are very important to their success, and if they strongly desire a career that helps people, they may find fulfilling work as a nutritionist or audiologist. The same may not be true for someone with similar needs but lower sociability. That person may be more comfortable aiming for a computer technology or engineering career. The following considerations may fall under the “motivation” or “need” categories according to the focus person’s individual traits and desires.

Social Living in College

Some students strongly desire new friends while others come to college expecting to get through the work without much fuss. How interested are you in having a social life during college? The number of units you take will likely impact this issue. A part-time student may have enough time on their hands but too little class time to actually meet new people. A student taking too many credits may find themselves so busy with homework that they don’t have time for friends. A student uninterested in social living in college may not mind either scenario, but a student who is looking to find friends will want to have a balanced schedule.

Sociability in Careers

How sociable do you envision your career being? Could you work with a subset of people, such as children, college grads, or seniors living with dementia? Education, healthcare, and research are all great pathways to working with people. If you’re not so keen on the idea, there are plenty of jobs with minimal social contact: forestry, animal and plant life biology, computer technology, and probably around half of STEM careers don’t require working directly with clients, patients, etc.

Supervision

It’s nice to avoid working with patients and students if that’s not your prerogative, but good luck getting away from supervisors! They are everywhere that freelancers are not. Most people who have ever made money have made at least some of it under the guidance of a supervisor. A good supervisor will do exactly that: guide their employees to be the best they can be in the workplace. They can be wonderful mentors, even if criticism might hurt initially. It’s extremely beneficial to work under a supervisor to begin with. However, if you’re really looking to be at the top of the chain, then you will want to find a career that doesn’t require a lot of supervision after mastery or a service/craft you can market and produce by yourself, like freelancing HVAC or electrical technicians.

Independence

How independent do you see yourself being? This is a big variable and will tie into your plan. You need to know where you will live and how much money, time, and energy you will need to expend. If you plan on living with family after college, for example, you may not have to fret too much about finances and can pursue a lofty or passionate goal. If you plan on living independently, you may want to target a reasonable job title with positive projected growth, good pay rates, and high job security.

Career Stability

As previously mentioned, stability is important for independence and should be taken into account during the planning process. How important is it to you and your plan to work regularly, pay bills, and have money left over for leisurely activities? Some jobs are in high demand and boast great stability and benefits, such as clinician titles. Other jobs are more risky. The jobs mentioned in the “Supervision” section do not have high stability and often do not come with benefits, so balancing stability and supervision preferences can be a challenge. Make sure to take the challenge head-on and identify your priorities before you get deep into an education plan that might not suit you.

Finances

Paying bills really isn’t the top reason for most people trying to get an education, but it must register somewhere on the priority list. This ties back into independence because the amount of money you will need will be directly influenced by how much of your own living costs you will be paying. Are you expecting to have disability income? Will you always live with your parents, or do you expect to rent an apartment someday? Are your hobbies costly, like video gaming, or cheaper, like crocheting?

Passion

Chances are, you already have a special interest. It might be a great motivator, so find out if it or something related will suit your needs! There are all kinds of jobs out there, and making connections through peers and instructors is an opportunity you may not want to pass up.

Advancement

Are you interested in moving through the ranks, or do you plan on staying in one position indefinitely? Some careers have more room for advancement, like business management and medical careers. Others have less room: for example, niched non-medical professions like a factory machine mechanic, and those with wide reach but relatively few levels, like city planning.

Variety

Are you trying to make new discoveries in a chosen field? Are you more interested in a comfortable and stable lifestyle? Research in all STEM fields is booming, but you can’t be sure that your project will continue to have adequate funding and you may find yourself looking for work from time to time. There are plenty of STEM careers that provide a steady flow of work, like data analysis.

I hope this list is helpful and that you are able to pinpoint interesting, fulfilling careers that meet your needs. For the most recent employment and wage statistics in the U.S., check the Bureau of Labor Statistics website.

Do you have more questions? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

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Elinore Alms

Elinore Alms is a Registered Behavior Technician in Fresno, California. She works part time as an in-home positive behavior supports provider and is a biology major at Fresno City College. In her spare time, she watches anime and cares for her many pets.

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