Why we need person-centred thinking when supporting young people with autism to transition to adulthood

03 March 2016

In the first of three posts about person-centred thinking and autism, Vicky reflects on how person-centred approaches can support young people with an autistic spectrum condition (ASC) to make important decisions that reflect what really matters to them.

Over the last few months, I’ve been working with Ambitious About Autism as a partner on their ‘Succeeding at College‘ programme. In particular, we have been working together to explore how person-centred approaches can support positive transitions from college education to adulthood.

Work to support this transition is crucial. Research by the National Autistic Society showed that only 15 per cent of adults with ASC were in full-time paid employment (Reid, 2007, p.6). However, the NAS’ own employment service, Prospects, which provided work preparation, job finding and employment support for individuals with ASC, and assistance with recruitment, training and the retention of staff with ASC for employers, was able to secure employment for 67 per cent of its clients. The numbers speak for themselves, and at Helen Sanderson Associates we’re sure that more can be done to support the transition from college into adulthood for young people with an autistic spectrum condition.

When planning for this transition, a one-size-fits-all approach for young people with autism simply doesn’t work. This is mirrored by the move from the term ‘having autism’ to ‘being on the autistic spectrum’. People exist at all points along that spectrum, and as a result, their needs are different. In addition to that, every individual will have their own personality, interests, likes, and dislikes. Given this infinite combination of needs and personalities, there are an equally large range of life choices to navigate through.

To take all this into account, we need to build a way of understanding what really matters to the person into their post-college transition. Only through doing this can we support them to make decisions that truly reflect who they are and what is best for them.

Of course, the same is true for all young people in education, which is why we think person-centred thinking can benefit everyone. That said, young people with autism will often need more support to make decisions at this important junction in their lives, because of the points of difference that they are likely to experience as a result of the condition. These are:


  • Communication and interaction: differences in understanding and using communication and language, with skills ranging from individuals who are highly articulate to others who may be non-verbal.
  • Social understanding: differences in understanding social behaviour and the feelings of others, which informs the development of friendships and relationships.
  • Interests and information processing: differences in how information is processed can lead to a strict adherence to routines and rules and/or difficulties in planning and personal memory.
  • Sensory processing: differences in the way sensory information is processed, often resulting in over and/or under sensitivities, can lead to extreme levels of stress and anxiety, particularly in unfamiliar or over stimulating environments.


The degree that these factors impact on a person’s life varies for each individual, but they need to be fully understood so that we can help the person plan for a future that works for them. They can impact on everything from the way a person learns, to the type of job that might suit them or where, how and what their home life might look like.

Person-centred thinking works in such a way that it doesn’t look at a person as a set of symptoms or a clinical condition to be treated. Instead it’s simply a way of structuring conversations so that people can explore the best way forward, using a solid understanding of who they are as the foundation for any decisions.

I’m hopeful for a future where the use of person-centred thinking tools will be embedded into the further education process for all young people, so we can make sure that we’re taking an individual’s points of difference into account when helping them to plan for their future. Only by doing so can we make sure that we’re really helping them to live the life they want.


As part of the ‘Succeeding at College’ programme, HSA and Ambitious About Autism have developed an e-learning package to support professionals in colleges to help young people with ASCs to plan for the future. Visit hsalonlinelearning.org for more information or to buy.

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