Failure to Launch: Tips for Parents with Young Adults on the Spectrum

When you think of “Failure to Launch” you may remember the old rom-com about desperate parents who hire a glamorous woman to pry their son out of his too-comfy life at home. For typically developing young adults, this story usually has a happy ending. 


The reality facing many parents of young adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is quite different. A series of reports recently published by the AJ Drexel Autism Institute Life Course Outcomes Program indicated that about one-third of high school graduates with ASD attend college, less than 20% of adults with ASD live independently, and less than 60% have a job. Often parents realize that it’s a family affair—that everyone needs to change in order for a son or daughter to achieve greater independence. Here are a few steps to consider.


Accept That We are Hardwired to Protect

As parents, we experience a powerful, neurobiologically rooted instinct to protect our offspring. Since this ensures the survival of our species, it’s no wonder that it has hung around a long time. This drive is even more powerful when a child is vulnerable. The first step toward change is recognizing this natural reaction and allowing oneself to calmly accept both halves of the equation: “I do need to protect my child from danger AND I need to give him some survival tools so that he needs me less.”


A-B-C Analysis

Are you stuck? Young adults and their parents often find themselves in an elaborately rationalized dance of dependence. Let’s take a look at the A-B-C analysis, used by behaviorists:


A stands for Antecedent

B for Behavior, and

C for Consequence


This simple “math” can help us understand many different types of behaviors and interactions.

Let’s take oversleeping. Using ABC for young adults, the Antecedent (A) to oversleeping is staying up until 3 am, the Behavior (B) is oversleeping, and the Consequence (C) is being allowed to sleep undisturbed until 1 pm.

A and C perpetuate B.


Using ABC for parents, the Antecedent (A) is the anxious and protective thought: “I must make sure he/she gets up”, the Behavior (B) is going in and waking him/her up, and the Consequence (C) is relief from the anxious thought.

A and C perpetuate B.


Careful ABC analysis helps us become aware of the ways in which the status quo is being maintained and is a first step to making a change.


So then what? How how do you change your behavior to get out of that cycle?


1. Collaborate

Collaborate with your son or daughter to identify one area in which a change can be made. Within that area, create a SMART goal—Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-related. General areas include work, school, activities of daily living (showering, cooking), and leisure or activities. “Stop being so lazy in the morning” is not a SMART goal. A SMART goal about waking up is: “Wake up at 8 a.m. without outside help Monday through Friday.” But remember the A for attainable—set an attainable goal in order to maintain buy-in and motivation. So the first goal in that scenario might be to wake up independently just one morning a week.


2. Natural Consequences as Motivation

Natural consequences are ones that arise naturally in response to a behavior. They can be positive or negative. If I pick up my socks, my spouse smiles at me. If I don’t get up on time, I miss my ride and lose my job or flunk a course. Assuming that the natural consequences matter to the young adult, allowing them to occur increases the likelihood that behavior will change. Losing the job may motivate the young adult to make a change. If a parent can’t tolerate the possibility of a lost job, estimate the cost in (your) labor and materials (gas) to wake up your young adult up and/or drive him/her to the commitment and deduct this amount from his allowance or the device budget. If a consequence isn’t motivating, then you are looking at the wrong consequence. Find one that matters -- to the young adult. Not to you.


3. Catch Them Being Good

This advice is typically applied to the parents of young children but it works for everyone. Train yourself to incentivize positive behaviors with labeled verbal praise and tangible rewards rather than offering criticism and negative consequences for an undesirable behavior. For example, it is better to reward a morning free of outbursts than to offer a negative consequence for an outburst. In that scenario, offer labeled verbal praise: “Great job keeping your cool this morning—it was so much fun to be with you!” -- and a tangible incentive such as access to preferred media.


Positive Natural Consequences or "Rewards"

Rewards are social and emotional, such as attention and praise, and tangible, such as money or access to pleasurable things or experiences. Your loving attention and praise matter a great deal to your son or daughter. Sometimes it is easy to lose sight of this when conflict is frequent. For most millennials, money, and access to electronic media are the most powerful tangible rewards. Consider that you probably pay for, own, and can control the young adult’s cell phone, computer, and gaming device. Access to money or electronic devices can be contingent on meeting a specific SMART goal. Food, sleep, a safe and clean living environment, and opportunities for socializing or physical activity should not be used as rewards. These are either necessary for survival or desirable in and of themselves.


As many caregivers know, this learning process can be emotional for both the parent and the young adult, but try to find a way to discuss and make decisions in an emotionally neutral manner. We are all more likely to change if the person inviting us to change offers mutual respect, warmth, and humor. Select an implementer who has the best relationship with your son or daughter. Sometimes this is someone outside the family. If you have the resources, consider someone with behavioral training such as a behavior management coach.


Is there any way to keep the laughs going? Only you can answer that, but it will go a long way. Often a young adult can tap into the “rock and a hard place” irony in the tricky task of growing up.

About College Internship Program

The College Internship Program is a comprehensive transition program for young adults on the Autism Spectrum and with Learning Differences. Our Mission is to inspire independence and expand the foundation on which young adults with Autism, ADHD, and other Learning Differences can build happy and productive lives.