Preparing Your Autistic Child to Live on Their Own

While some people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) will never be able to live and function independently, those on the high-functioning end of the spectrum are often able to go to college, find jobs, and live on their own.

As the parent of an autistic child, you are probably accustomed to being very involved in all aspects of your child's daily life, and they are very likely dependent on you for things like scheduling meals, setting bedtimes, and keeping on top of doctor's appointments. The prospect of letting your child manage these aspects of life by themselves can be unnerving.

You can ease some of the anxiety for both you and your child by preparing them to take on some basic responsibilities once they leave the nest. Here are five things your child should know how to do.

Parent holding adult child
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Take Care of Their Physical Health

Many people with autism have difficulty with interoception, the sense of the internal state of the body. This means internal cues, such as hunger and thirst, are often lacking. If your child doesn't seem to experience traditional "hunger pangs," signs that they're hungry might include lagging energy, crankiness, anxiety, and headache. Teach your child to recognize those signs, and to set a regular schedule for meal times.

Sleep problems are common among college-age adults, especially those with autism. Poor sleep quality affects all aspects of life and health, including mood. Encourage your teen to develop healthy sleep habits, aiming for seven to nine hours a night. Afternoon naps can be helpful to make up any sleep deficits.

Take Care of Their Emotional Health

Many people with autism struggle with emotional dysregulation. Help your child be prepared with coping strategies, such as deep breathing and meditation.

People with autism also struggle with social skills, which can make it hard to develop friendships. Many college-age kids with autism find that seeing a therapist on a regular basis can help them navigate difficult social situations and emotions, and learn how to make friends.

If your child takes medication for anxiety, depression, mood swings, or another mental health diagnosis, make sure they know which ones to take and at what times (a pill organizer can help), and how to refill their prescriptions. You may need to stay on top of them for a while, and continue to make doctor's appointments for them until they are ready to do so for themselves.

Be a Good Roommate

Whether it’s a college dorm or first apartment, almost everyone shares a living space with other people at some point. For someone with autism, the unwritten rules of cohabitating can be confusing. Help your teen understand the importance of keeping common areas tidy, and teach them basic housekeeping skills, such as washing dishes, doing laundry, cooking, sweeping, washing floors, taking out the garbage, and cleaning the bathroom.

Living with other people can be challenging, and many people with autism deal with sensory processing difficulties that can make coping with roommates extra stressful. Make sure your teen is prepared with items like noise-canceling headphones, a sleep mask to block out light, calming fidgets and stims, and other items that can help them maintain a sense of calm when surrounded by other people.

Advocate for Themselves

For most of your child’s life, you have probably been advocating for them to make sure they get proper accommodations in the classroom and any other services they need. When your child gets older, however, they will need to learn how to advocate for themselves.

The disability services model in college is different than in high schools. Many children with autism who used Individualized Education Plans (IEP) throughout high school may have difficulty without the same supports and accommodations in place. While IEPs or 504 plans do not carry over to college, colleges are still required to provide accommodations under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

To help your child learn to advocate for themselves, talk about some of the challenges and obstacles they may encounter and brainstorm together on how to approach them and problem-solve on their own. Writing "scripts" and role-playing hypothetical conversations can be helpful as well.

If your teen is going to college, make sure they know how to access disability support services on campus in order to get any classroom or dorm accommodations they may need. Your teen should also review student manuals and understand their rights in different situations. 

Find Their Tribe

Everyone does better when surrounded by people who support them and share common interests, but socializing rarely comes naturally to someone with ASD. Encourage your child to join groups and participate in activities that genuinely interest them and that they may have been involved with in high school.

Young adulthood is also a great time to become active in national and local organizations that promote autism awareness and/or are active in political and public policy advocacy. One of the most prominent of these is the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network.

A Word From Verywell

Keep in mind that there is no one-size-fits-all timeline for people on the spectrum. Some high school seniors are ready to go away to a four-year college right after graduation, while others are not. If your child isn’t ready to leave home just yet, be respectful of that decision.

Many young adults benefit from a gap year and some people just take a little longer to figure out their way in life. Help your child forge their own path in their own time. Most important is to always make sure your child knows you are here to support them no matter what.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Devnani PA, Hegde AU. Autism and sleep disorders. J Pediatr Neurosci. 2015;10(4):304-307. doi:10.4103/1817-1745.174438

  3. Spain D, Sin J, Chalder T, Murphy D, et al. Cognitive behaviour therapy for adults with autism spectrum disorders and psychiatric co-morbidity: A review. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders. 2015;9:151-162. doi:10.1016/j.rasd.2014.10.019

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Additional Reading

By Lisa Jo Rudy
Lisa Jo Rudy, MDiv, is a writer, advocate, author, and consultant specializing in the field of autism.