Parenting an Adult Child With Asperger Syndrome

Mother helping her son of 12 years old with Autism and Down Syndrome in daily lives emptying the dishwasher

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In every parent-child relationship, there comes a point when its time for the child to transition into adulthood. While this is a bittersweet time for all, for parents of children with Asperger's or high functioning autism the move to child autonomy can be fraught with extra challenges. 

Parents of autistic kids are used to being extra involved in their child’s life and education, with frequent communication between teachers, doctors, and therapist. As the child grows into adulthood, it can be hard to cut the cord. 

Finding a good balance between helping your teen and encouraging independence is tricky. Here's some advice from parents who have been there:

Forget Timelines 

Most parents have a vision of their child’s future that includes graduate high school, go to college, start a career, and be a relatively happy and successful adult. While all these things are still possible for autistics, the path may not be as direct as their neurotypical peers.

Forget timelines and focus on one small goal at a time. Some high school seniors are ready to go away to a 4-year college 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.

Be Supportive 

All young adults need help navigating the world from time to time. Adults with Aspergers are no exception. Make sure you keep the lines of communication open and be a good sounding board for your child. 

Practice active, empathetic listening, hold space for your child, and collaboratively brainstorm solutions. Avoid trying to solve problems for your adult child and instead, help them to learn to problem-solve on their own.

The book Raising Human Beings by child psychologist and author Ross Greene, Ph.D., provides an easy-to-follow format for using these techniques to help your young adult thrive.

Most important is to always make sure your child knows you are here to support them no matter what, and if they try and fail, you will be there to help them get back up. 

Aim to Understand

While every autistic person is different, many share common traits and a common experience—being neurodiverse in a world that caters to neurotypical people. In addition to listening to your young adult, seek out other autistic voices to help you see the world through their eyes. Here are some suggestions on where to start:

  • The Asperger Experts: Started in 2012 by Danny Reade and Hayden Mears, two young men with Aspergers, the organization offers advice for parents through an autistic lens, explaining everything from sensory processing disorder and autistic meltdowns to how to motivate someone with autism and techniques for encouraging personal hygiene.
  • The Journey Through Autism: The blog by Ethan Hirschberg, a young man with high functioning autism, shares his personal experiences, insight, and advice to individuals on the spectrum, parents, caregivers, educators, and providers. Diagnosed at age 2, his posts are evidence that having autism does not limit a person or their goals.
  • The Art of Autism: An international collaboration of autistic artists, the site features many forms of artwork including blog posts, art, poetry, and videos by people on the spectrum and offers a unique view into the world of actually autistic people.
  • Temple Grandin: Probably one of the most well-known autistic authors and speakers, Grandin was one of the first people on the autism spectrum to publicly share insights from her personal experience of autism. She has published several books from an autistic perspective and is the subject of the 2010 film, Temple Grandin.

Let Go

As a parent, releasing a young adult into the world can be hard. Autistic adults face greater challenges in a neurotypical world, which can make letting go even harder for their parents. 

Knowing that you did your best to prepare your child for adulthood can help to ease some of the anxiety. Here are things to teach your child to help them navigate life.

Teach Your Autistic Teen How To

Before your child leaves the nest, there are a few things that can help smooth the transition. Teach your child how to:

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. While they may not feel traditional hunger pangs, other signs—lagging energy, crankiness, anxiety, headache—along with scheduled time for meals, can help. 

Sleep problems can be an issue for all college-age adults, but they are a prominent feature in autism. Poor sleep quality affects all aspects of life and health, including mood. Encourage your teen to develop healthy sleep habits and sleep 7 to 9 hours a night. While you may not be able to convince them to not stay up late and sleep in, the quality and quantity of sleep is more important than when they sleep. Afternoon naps can be helpful to make up on sleep deficits.

Take Care of Their Emotional Health

Eating and sleeping regularly and staying hydrated can go along way toward helping a person feel emotionally healthy. Many people with autism struggle with emotional regulation at times. Help your child be prepared with coping strategies that work for them, such as deep breathing and meditation.

Managing relationships can be especially difficult. Encourage your child to surround themselves with supportive people and avoid fake friends or unkind people whenever possible. Many college-age autistics find seeing a regular therapist can help them sort through difficult social situations and emotions.

If your child takes medication for anxiety, depression, mood swings, or other mental health diagnoses, help them develop a plan to take medications every day and refill prescriptions regularly. If your child has difficulty remembering to pick up refills or make doctors appointments, continue to help supporting them in this area for as long as needed.

Be a Good Roommate

Whether it’s a college dorm or first apartment, at some point, everyone shares living space with other people and the unwritten rules of cohabitating can be confusing. Help your young adult understand the importance of keeping common areas tidy.

Teach basic housekeeping before your teen leaves the nest. Dishes, laundry, cooking, sweeping, washing floors, taking out the garbage, and cleaning the bathroom are all skills everyone needs to learn before they move out of their parent’s house.

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 sensory coping 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 other people are annoying.

Advocate For Themselves

Most neurotypical students start learning to advocate for themselves in middle school, but this can be more challenging for people with autism or Aspergers. 

To help your child learn to advocate for themselves start with small situations and support them as they grow more confident in their self-advocacy skills. Talk through challenges in advance, help write scripts, and go over the talk afterward. 

It is important for every person to know and be aware of their rights—as a student, patient, citizen, employee, and partner—in order to advocate them. Help your teen review student and employee manuals and to understand their rights in different situations. 

In addition, the disability services model in college is different than in high schools. Many autistics 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. Help your child to navigate the process as they learn to advocate for their unique education needs. 

Find Their Tribe

Everyone does better when surrounded by people who support them and share common interests. Encourage your autistic adult to find their people. In addition to joining organizations and participating in school events, there is a wonderful, supportive Aspergers and autistic online community.

As your child navigates the adult social world, be prepared to support and encourage them from the sidelines. Help them talk through challenges and disappointments, and cheer them on as they succeed.

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Article Sources

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