Peter B., an autistic college student, shares strategies that have helped him live independently
At age 4, Peter B. was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. Fast forward to 20, he's now a rising junior at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology juggling a major in computer science, economics, and data science. Living independently for the first time, he's navigating college life with aplomb.
Dive into this Q&A where Peter unveils the strategies that shaped his transformative journey.
Peter is an engaged member of the Self-Advocate Committee that advises the Autism Speaks Autism Care Network, a network of 20 medical centers working to improve autism care. If you are an autistic person or family member and would like to get involved in our Self-Advocate Committee or Family Partners Committee, please contact Bethany.Peralta@autismspeaks.org.
Can you tell me about yourself?
My name is Peter. My pronouns are he/him. Some of my professional interests include artificial intelligence safety, healthcare economics, international development economics, and machine learning more broadly. And some of my personal interests include moral philosophy, Warhammer 40,000, Dungeons and Dragons and all different types of RPGs.
How are you feeling about college?
My coursework is very challenging, but I feel like it's a good match. I am currently getting coaching services through both Easterseals and the Asperger Autism Network (AANE) to work on scheduling and other time management skills. I do pace myself fairly well on big assignments, but I often get worried that I'm falling behind or going too far ahead.
What skills are you working on right now?
Two of the big ones are cooking and time management. I’m also trying to get comfortable going to different events. I’m considering going to a conference in Boston in October. I'm doing that largely to practice these sorts of skills on my own.
How did you learn independent living skills like cooking and self-care?
The same way I learned social skills—taking a serious amount of time to practice until they become a routine thing that I could easily do. I first learned to cook for myself between the ages of 14 to 18. I could make myself breakfast and pack myself lunch starting around age 14. Dinner was a bit harder. I only knew how to cook a few things going into college, and that is still a challenge, but I am practicing. I started to learn how to do laundry when I was 16, but I actually figured it out when I moved into the dorm at 19 because I was forced to do it regularly.
When I was younger, I needed support to do different tasks, but I've since built up structures in my life that allow me to do them independently. For example, I had to get myself in the habit of remembering to do certain hygiene-related personal care tasks. What I did was set alarms on my phone for three weeks to make those tasks part of my routine. After about three weeks, I turned the alarms off. The idea was to build the habit and then start fading off the prompts that I set for myself.
Another technique that works well is breaking down skills into separate tasks. Often, with cooking, that's often already done with recipe instructions. Just write down a list of the key tasks and practice each element in a structured purposeful setting. It is not going to be pleasant to do this practice if you are actually pushing yourself. If it’s easy, you should probably move on to the next thing to practice.
How can parents encourage their autistic children to build better social skills?
I suggest flooding them with natural practice opportunities, ideally ones with real consequences for failure. Find tons of social opportunities for your kids and get them involved.
The attitude that autistic kids somehow can’t be expected to work hard in this area is false. If a kid has dyslexia, it's typical to expose them to intensive reading instruction. Similarly, you need to expose autistic kids to a lot of different social skills in a safe way. Set the expectation that this is a thing they are expected to succeed in—something that's going to be hard, but doable.
The key thing is to make sure that kids spend at least an hour per day socializing. Really try to get them to socialize over something that they are interested in, like a club relating to a special interest.
And give lots of feedback. Before the social interaction, have a 5-minute check-in to explain expectations and go over the kid’s goals for the day. Afterwards, have a 5-minute check-out to debrief. In-the-moment feedback is also helpful and should be in very short bursts of a few seconds. That was the format of the social skills instruction I got in middle school from one of my teachers, and that went great.
Did you participate in any skill development programs growing up?
Growing up, I got applied behavior analysis therapy through my local public school. I also participated in the Massachusetts General Hospital Aspire summer program for young autistic people from age 6 to 18. A lot of the methodology was based on Michelle Garcia’s social thinking curriculum, which I’ve since learned is not empirically validated. It placed a big emphasis on seven skills:
- Flexibility, or dealing with changes in circumstances
- Adaptability, or dealing with all different kinds of circumstances
- Composure, or staying calm
- Esteem, or feeling positively about yourself
- Toughness, or being sure to participate
- Social understanding, or being able to accurately read social situations
- Sociability, or being able to interact with other people
Certainly a lot of the program was good and I met people who really made an impact on me, but the instruction was largely focused on theoretical content with no actual practice opportunities outside of that group. In retrospect, I think I might have gotten better results in another environment.
If you had to share one lesson with autistic youth about building skills for the future, what would it be?
The key lesson is to practice doing things. If there's anything you want to learn, just pick up the basics of how to do it and then see what works. You're going to make every mistake you could possibly make, but just keep trying.