THE BLOG
01/30/2015 06:04 pm ET Updated Apr 01, 2015

Autism Without Fear: Examining the Legitimacy of 'Autism Life Coaches'

Over the last five years there's been a noticeable increase in folks with varying experience levels promoting themselves as "autism life coaches" -- people who advertise their services to adults on the spectrum, parents, or partners. A random Google search with those three words will attest to the present glut of alleged professionals.

Their growth is understandable. As someone who has always believed in the existence of an "autism market" that can be studied as its own isolated, economic entity, the disproportionately high amount of media attention the spectrum gets (when compared to other diagnoses) would dictate that a parallel number will try to capitalize on that market. That's not to say that there aren't folks who proclaim themselves autism life coaches (ALCs) because they want to do good and help others, but there's an inevitable supply and demand, social Darwinist factor here as well.

And yes -- cut to the chase -- I'm a cynic: I think the majority of so-called coaches are useless. But how do we discern the snake oil sales folk from those who actually might help someone?

First off, let's understand why some seek out ALCs, starting with folks for whom traditional psychiatric therapy did not work out.

Traditional clinical therapy is a proven plus for society, provided we have access via economic factors or through insurances. But while the efforts of LCSWs, Ph.D.s, and the like do much to better our understanding of where we are and where we come from, they fall shorter in the category of where do we go from here -- it's the difference between thought and action. Shrinks are thinkers that get us to think, but they are often not great motivators. Coaching, by definition, is about little else other than motivation. For these folks, qualified coaching could be a great supplement to traditional analysis.

But there are also those who are resistant to traditional therapy because they are unwilling to honestly examine the self. For them, a bad fall is likely in their future, with or without qualified life coaching.

While there are ALCs (often underpaid and unqualified), job coaches, and even dating coaches in the autism world, let's look at our easiest, iconic definition of what comes to mind when we think of the word "coach" -- the sports coach. While professional coaches are geared only to win, all others (youth and school) are rooted in development. Too often as a travel baseball coach* I noticed that people couldn't make up their minds whether my job was to win or to provide a fun atmosphere for my kids. To me, it was neither. My job was to ensure that the young person was simply a better baseball player by season's end, and that I increased their love and/or respect for the game.

In the business world there are "executive coaches," similar to professional sports coaches, whose job is to get their charges to win. But in every other supposedly-therapeutic, non-professional sports-related coaching, development and motivation will be the task at hand, not winning. So how do we figure out from the plethora of self-styled ALCs -- in a "field" where accreditation is sketchy at best -- which ones are the real deal that might help us?

1. Great coaches of any kind are great communicators and great teachers. Discern which ones are conveying information that resonates as authority or as new to us and which ones are (what I like to call) recycled platitude factories. One red flag herein is too much "be the best you that you can be" talk and not enough specific outlining of what they intend to do with you should you hire them. The parallel in sports is the coach who demonstrates no confidence yet will shove Vince Lombardi quotes at you ad nauseum.

2. Great coaches are also great listeners. Yes, there are times when a good coach senses you're getting too bogged down with talking about, justifying, or defending your thoughts/life thus far... and will then tell you to shut up, let the crap go, and focus on (throwing a strike to the catcher's mitt, redoing your resume, or asking someone out on a date). But if you sense that an ALC is giving you a cookie cutter sales pitch without demonstrating an understanding of where you're at, ditch them.

3. Examine their lives. Maybe the majority of the world believes that you should separate one's personal abilities from their professional abilities, but I certainly trust those who have practiced what they preach successfully more than I trust those who've herein fallen short. And in a field such as this I think it becomes a no-brainer to demand that these folks can show as well as tell (part of my cynicism is derived from too often having come across alleged coaches... whose personal and financial lives are best described as train wrecks). That said, however, we're not necessarily after a cookie cutter life from our coaches (successful romantic life, two happy kids who get straight As, a million bucks in the bank, etc.). You're after people who have made informed choices throughout their lives that have caused them to be happy and content, both personally and professionally.

4. Be wary of those offering Skype sessions. The absence of face-to-face contact allows you to be more dishonest while in session, and if they have a brain, they know that. What then, does that say about them?

I honestly think very, very few of those that advertise will pass these benchmarks. And as a result, I feel tremendously for those that come through these questions as legitimate motivators. Because in addition to their good, core work, they are probably struggling to separate themselves from all the well-meaning but laughable opportunists out there. With so many minefields containing inadequate ALCs, they will unjustly struggle for clients.

One final note: Remember that in the autism world, we struggle with mood disorders like depression at a higher rate than those that do not have autism in their lives, and depression is a motivation killer. Real depression will not be successfully addressed by an ALC, and no motivation can truly happen until the depression is addressed. So if you struggle herein, stay on "the couch" before even considering spending serious money on a coach.

* My baseball background was described in a previous, three-part post "Don't Kid Yourself, or Rob Your Kid -- Sports Matter." For Part I click here.

Michael John Carley is the Founder of GRASP, a School Consultant in Wisconsin, and the author of "Asperger's From the Inside-Out" (Penguin/Perigee), "The Last Memoir of Asperger Syndrome" (TBD), and numerous articles. He is also at work on "Unemployed on the Autism Spectrum," and "'Why Am I Afraid of Sex?' Building Sexual Confidence in the Autism Spectrum...and Beyond" (both JKP, due 2016). In 2000, he and one of his two sons were diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome. More information can be found at www.michaeljohncarley.com