Tools for Successful Transition:
Self-Determination, Resilience, and
Grit in Adolescents with
Autism Spectrum Disorders
Contributed by Anna Merrill, MSEd, Graduate Assistant
Intelligence does not predict those that go on to be the most accomplished. Those that are successful have something beyond “smarts.” It turns out that characteristics like self-determination, resilience, and grit play a much deeper role in a successful transition from adolescence to adulthood than grades or test scores. The promotion of motivation, goal setting, and self-advocacy can make a difference in improving academic and transition outcomes for all students, but in particular students with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The presence of traits like self-determination, resilience, and grit in adolescents with ASD has been linked to several positive outcomes including meaningful employment, independent living, recreation and leisure outcomes, and an overall improved quality of life.
Self-determination theory, an approach to human motivation and personality, suggests that people cannot experience optimal well-being if they do not successfully pursue and obtain goals to meet basic psychological needs such as affiliation, growth, and engagement in community (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Wehmeyer (2006) defines self-determined behavior as “volitional actions that enable one to act as the primary causal agent in one’s life and to maintain or improve one’s quality of life.” Individuals practicing self-determination are actively pursuing and obtaining their goals.
The promotion of self-determination in adolescents with disabilities is considered an essential evidence-based practice to prepare children with disabilities for the transition to adulthood. There is a wealth of evidence to suggest that children with ASD are less self-determined than their typically developing peers (Wehmeyer, Shrogen, Zager, Smith, & Simpson, 2010). Fortunately, there are several ways for parents and teachers to promote self-determination in adolescents with ASD.
Resilience is defined as successful adaptation in the face of adversity (Masten, Hubbard, Gest, Tellegen, Garmezy, & Ramirez, 1999). Resilient individuals are less likely to give up when presented with obstacles and are able to rebound from challenges and continue to live their life fully. There is a body of research to suggest that resilience is an important construct for supporting positive outcomes for individuals with disabilities.
Resilience in children with disabilities can be promoted through three avenues: 1) developing positive personal traits, 2) developing positive family relationships, and 3) accessing community support sources (Tedeschi and Kilmer, 2005). Positive personal traits or characteristics that increase resilience include positive temperamental or dispositional qualities, good intellectual functioning, self-efficacy, positive self-worth, perceived competence, sound problem-solving skills, internal locus of control, accurate and realistic attributions of control, and positive future expectations or a sense of optimism. Many of these traits may be inherent, or something that an individual is born with, but others can likely be fostered such as positive self-worth and problem solving skills. Positive family relationships requires a warm or nurturing family environment, quality parenting, structured and stable home life, and a positive relationship with a primary caregiver. Building strong family relationships will help to promote resilience in adolescents with ASD. Finally, community supports and resources such as links to extended family support networks, effective schools and teachers, involvement in prosocial organizations and extracurricular activities, and positive neighborhood qualities will increase resilience.
Grit is a social psychological construct developed by researcher Angela Lee Duckworth defined as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals” (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, & Kelly, 2007). Individuals with high levels of grit set long-term goals for themselves and do not abandon them, even when they are not getting positive feedback along the way. Grit entails dedication to goals that are implicitly or extrinsically rewarding.
In children and young adults, high levels of grit have been found to predict positive outcomes, particularly when it comes to academic achievement. Gritty adolescents report higher GPAs and reported less hours watching television than their peers (Duckworth & Quinn, 2009). Gritty juniors in high school were more likely to graduate from high school their senior year than those with lower levels of grit (Eskreis-Winkler, Shulman, Beal, & Duckworth, 2014). These studies provide support for diverse and powerful positive outcomes in adolescents with high levels of grit. Grit is an important strength in students who struggle to meet academic standards. As a child with ASD has to fight to be successful in school, high levels of grit support perseverance to keep moving toward their goals despite the obstacles they may face.
As high levels of grit predict positive academic outcomes, it therefore follows that schools and parents should foster grittiness in children and adolescents with ASD. While there is little to no research on this topic, it is possible that grit can be increased by looking to other areas of study. One way for teachers, clinicians, and parents to support the development of grit would be through the promotion of a growth mindset. A growth mindset is one in which an individual believes that intelligence and skills can be developed with hard work. Growth mindset can be fostered by praise focused on effort rather than outcomes (Dweck and Master, 2009). This means telling a child you are proud of the way they completed a task, or the effort they put forth, rather than telling them they are smart or praising them for grades. As children learn to see their abilities as malleable, as opposed to fixed, they may be more likely to persevere in the face of poor grades, difficult assignments, or bullying from their peers. Students may also need to be reminded of their goals when they face adversity. This means encouraging students to write goals down or state them out loud in case conference meetings or in front of their class or counselor. Parents should be reminded to encourage goal setting and support adolescents in their interests for which they show natural passion. Supporting that passion and perseverance toward those goals may be able to increase levels of grit in adolescents with ASD and therefore improve outcomes.
Barriers to Developing Self-Determination, Resilience, and Grit
Individuals supporting adolescents with ASD can often, with the best intentions, impede the development of self-determination, resilience, and grit. All of these traits can be developed when an individual takes control of their life and has the ability to make their own choices. Telling an adolescent with ASD what they want and how to accomplish it, may obstruct their ability to develop the self-determination that is needed to be a successful adult. In contrast, guiding them through their own choices can support self-determination and lead to better outcomes. In addition, never allowing an adolescent to fail, or protecting them from any adversity, will make it impossible to build resilience. Resilience is needed for when those unavoidable failures happen. Instead, think about ways to help an individual learn from failures and make new choices in which they are less likely to fail. In terms of grit, foster passions and support the development of long-term goals, rather than getting stuck in a “let’s just get through today” mindset. The growth mindset needed to continue persevering toward long term goals is developed when parents, friends, and teachers are reinforcing hard work and providing honest feedback rather than focusing on test scores or things the individual cannot do.
It is never too early for parents and educators supporting a teen with ASD to start thinking about the transition to adulthood. Often times preparing for this transition requires letting go of the protective instinct and pushing the adolescent out of their comfort zone. Conversations about what it will take to go to college or get a job should happen early and honestly. By fostering the development of self-determination, resilience, and grit you can provide the life-long tools needed for success in adulthood.
Books to Check Out with More Information:
Self-Determination Strategies for Adolescents in Transition: Learning from Case Studies by David Parker, Sharon Field, and Alan Hoffman
Promoting Self-Determination in Students with Developmental Disabilities by Michael Wehmeyer
Self-Determination and Transition Planning by Karrie A. Shogren
Resilience in the Classroom: Helping Students with Special Needs by Lisa Medoff
Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck
Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087.
Duckworth, A. L., & Quinn, P. D. (2009). Development and validation of the Short Grit Scale (GRIT–S). Journal of Personality Assessment, 91(2), 166-174.
Dweck, C. S., & Master, A. (2009). In Wenzel K. R., Wigfield A. (Eds.), Self-theories and motivation: Students beliefs about intelligence (pp. 123-140). New York, NY, US: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.
Eskreis-Winkler, L., Shulman, E. P., Beal, S. A., & Duckworth, A. L. (2014). The grit effect: Predicting retention in the military, the workplace, school and marriage. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1-12.
Masten, A. S., Hubbard, J. J., Gest, S. D., Tellegen, A., Garmezy, N., & Ramirez, M. (1999). Competence in the context of adversity: Pathways to resilience and maladaptation from childhood to late adolescence. Development and Psychopathology, 11(01), 143-169.
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68.
Tedeschi, R. G., & Kilmer, R. P. (2005). Assessing strengths, resilience, and growth to guide clinical interventions. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 36(3), 230.
Wehmeyer, M. L. (2006). Self-determination and individuals with severe disabilities: Re-examining meanings and misinterpretations. Research and Practice for Persons With Severe Disabilities, 30, 113–120.
Wehmeyer, M. L., Shogren, K. A., Zager, D., Smith, T. E., & Simpson, R. (2010). Research-based principles and practices for educating students with autism: Self-determination and social interactions. Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities, 475-486.
Merrill, A. (2016). Tools for successful transition: self-determination, resilience, and grit in adolescents with autism spectrum disorders. The Reporter, 20(16). Retrieved from:https://www.iidc.indiana.edu/pages/tools_for_successful_transition