Transition to Adulthood
Growing up, I was always the weird kid. My mother thought I was colorblind because of how I dressed. I could describe the ecosystem of the Amazon rainforest in detail by the age of three, and everyone who met me either loved me or hated me. It wasn’t until I started having real trouble in school that I was diagnosed with ADHD in Grade 6 (a diagnosis I now doubt I really fall under), because no one around me knew what autism was. If they had, I’m sure I would have been one of those kids who got dragged to a pediatrician during my toddling years, while the adults all moan and cry about what could be “wrong” with me. My mother never thought anything was wrong, so of course I was never brought to a doctor.
There are advantages and disadvantages to getting a late-in-life diagnosis (if 19 even counts as “late”). I was able to grow up “normally,” in the sense that I was never labeled, separated, or pathologized as a child. I was just me. But on the other hand, I probably would have had a far easier time of it if I had know why I was so different. And maybe all those teachers and dentists who treated me so poorly would have given me some slack.
Depending on one’s “functioning” level—though I have numerous problems with separating autistics into “high” and “low” functionality levels, but that’s a topic for another day—childhood may be manageable. I was a difficult child with pretty abnormal behaviors and needs, but I was still very child-like, and much of my behavior could be excused because of my age. Though as I got older and retained these behaviors—social blunderings, abnormal clothing, or sensory issues—I started to stand out. It’s normal for a 5-year-old to be scared by the loud sounds of a fireworks display, but it’s not normal for a 16-year-old to be scared by the loud sounds of a friend’s stereo system. Though that 5-year-old can get away with shyly running behind Mama during the traditional post-holiday, family goodbye hugs, a 16-year-old can’t really do that.
The transition to adulthood can be difficult for autistics—though I laugh as I type this because of course it is; it’s difficult for everyone. But the social role of adult is very different from the role of child, and this shift can be overwhelming to an autistic who has spent her entire life struggling to learn the complex rules that dictate how to act as a dependent minor. Everything changes. Things like body language (Is it okay to put my feet up on the bench at a restaurant?), behavior (Can I read my book at the table when I’m at a dinner party?), and other innocuous things can take on whole new meanings as an adult. There are new expectations to meet, and the world is a little less lenient when it comes to manners. Romance, for example, is extremely complex, and an area on which many autistics are left high and dry.
If these social rules are often so seemingly mandatory—even if you never have an office job, you may want to find a mate—why are there so few resources for autistic adults? So often, the discussion is of autistic children. Better special education programs, or alternatives like individualized education and early intervention therapies, are all wonderful things. But the child-centric view of autism leads to problems. The “DSM-IV” criteria that seem written for children make diagnosis sometimes difficult for adults who have learned to “adapt” over time. (This is especially the case for women, which we will explore later in a future column.) We need resources to address what happens when all these cute little children grow up. Things like getting a job, renting an apartment, and even going to the grocery store, can be unfathomably difficult for people on the spectrum. But, as with many things that don’t come naturally to us, we can learn and adapt if only we know how.