Do a quick internet search on autism or ASD and you’ll start to notice a trend in the search results: Signs of Autism in Babies, 10 Ways to Help Your Teen on the Spectrum, Talking to Your Child’s Teacher About Autism… notice anything? The research, literature, and even the blog posts seem to center around children on the spectrum.
The focus on children with autism (ASD), and the contrasting lack of information on adults with ASD, probably has to do with the fact that most people with an ASD diagnosis receive one in childhood. Parents are eager to learn how to support their children, and pediatricians are interested in learning what benefits ASD families. Finally, because adults on the spectrum have had more time to learn coping mechanisms (or how to “pass”), ASD in adults is often less visible than in children.
But it’s not a pediatric condition. Sometimes adults with subtler manifestations of ASD are able to mask symptoms enough to blend in, and in rare cases diagnosed children can master coping skills to the degree that they no longer meet the criteria for ASD. This has led some to believe that ASD can go away in adulthood—but it doesn’t just disappear.
Here are 5 things to know about adults on the autism spectrum:
1. They’re not all “Rain Man”
It’s true that some adults on the spectrum are quite talented, some in unique, highly specialized areas. But just as every ASD child is different, so is every adult. Some may hold jobs, pay rent, get married, and have kids. Others may remain non-verbal their whole lives and need highly specialized care. The rule that “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism” is as true for adults as it is for children.
2. They still appreciate grace (just like everyone does)
Meltdowns are a part of every toddler’s growing up experience, and a screaming toddler on the spectrum often receives grace because they’re “just a kid.” Children on the spectrum receive extra support in school, and teenagers are forgiven for being awkward as they navigate changing social expectations.
But adults? They’re supposed to have it all figured out. But it may still be hard for and adult with ASD to make eye contact, read social cues, and handle loud noises long past the time people will forgive them for it. There shouldn’t be an expiration date on grace and patience.
If neurotypicals write off people on the spectrum because they find them challenging, they’ll miss out on all they have to offer. And, with rates of autism increasing, the definition of the “typical” neurotype needs to adjust. Everyone will benefit from learning to understand and appreciate different neurotypes.
3. They may face serious housing challenges
For some folks on the spectrum, it’s not just a matter of finding a job and then renting an apartment. Some will need full-time support, and it’s not always easy to come by. An adult on the spectrum will be deemed independent if their IQ is over a certain number, which will limit what funding they’re eligible for. Appropriate group homes can also be hard to find and vary in quality.
Even those who do well in many other areas may struggle with all the ever-changing variables of living on their own: planning ahead, solving new problems, and reacting to emergencies. Certain services are guaranteed to those with special needs through the Individuals with Disabilities Act through the age of 21, but after that, available services vary greatly by state. Adults on the spectrum face the confusing world of adult social services starting on their 22nd birthday.
4. They can be extremely successful
More and more companies, especially those in the tech industry, are starting to hire people with ASD not because it’s a nice thing to do, but because it’s the smart thing to do for their business. Employees on the spectrum can bring a valuable skills to the workplace; they are detail oriented, can stay on one task for a long time, and are able to identify subtle patterns.
The tech consulting company auticon hires only consultants on the spectrum, noting that autism is “not a processing error, it’s another operating system.”
Other giants like Microsoft and Walgreens have started programs to recruit employees on the spectrum. Celebrities like Dan Ackroyd, Daryl Hannah, Stephen Shore, and Temple Grandin have all been open about being on the spectrum. Though the unemployment rate for those on the spectrum lags far behind that of neurotypicals, with so many examples of success, we can hope that the world will adjust so that everyone has a chance to find workplace success.
Autism doesn’t end at 18 or 21. It doesn’t end when someone lands a job or moves out on their own. People on the spectrum will always have to work to understand neurotypicals and the world around them—neurotypicals should be willing to do the same for those with ASD, regardless of their age. The more understanding we offer to people who are different than us, the more insight we’ll gain for ourselves.
Katie Taylor started writing in 5th grade and hasn't stopped since. Her favorite place to pen a phrase is in front of her fireplace with a cup of tea, but she's been known to write in parking lots on the backs of old receipts if necessary. She and her husband live cozily in the Pacific Northwest enjoying rainy days and Netflix.