Limbo-land. That is what I like to call the stage of adolescence (teenage years to early or mid- 20s).
You want independence, but you don’t have all the tools yet to be independent; maybe you even feel stuck. Teenagers and young adults might often find themselves in this place. They are probably about to graduate high school or college, thinking: “What next?” “How come everyone else seems to know what to do?” “How come I am the only person who doesn’t have a direction?” “Where do I go?”
You can take comfort in knowing that you are not the only person going through that experience and having those kinds of thoughts. Young adulthood is about searching for a direction and place (It is the 5th stage of Erikson’s social-emotional development). It does not have to be all figured out right away.
For young adults with high-functioning (HF) autism, it can be even more complicated than not having direction. As it is, individuals with HF autism probably already feel stuck between having a disability and being neuro-typical. Autism can be invisible to other people; and individuals with HF autism may present neuro-typical. HF autism does not present the common signs of a disability: no wheelchair, no hearing-aid, no communication devices, and no orthopedic braces. The difference becomes apparent when individuals with HF autism receive assistance. Some young adults with autism probably had accommodations in high school, such as modified homework or extended test-taking time, a one-on-one classroom aide, or support staff to help develop independent living skills. So in entering young adulthood, individuals with high-functioning autism might look around and think, “How come other teenagers don’t have an adult with them at school or at social events, but I do?” or “How come other college students don’t have an aide or support staff like me? Why am I the only person in class who gets extended time to take a test?”
It can become frustrating for young adults with HF autism to reconcile the conflicting ideas of having visible assistance for an invisible disability. It may even be difficult for you to accept the visible assistance because to others, you do not look like you need the assistance. These thoughts can become discouraging and may even result in feelings of sadness, frustration, insecurity, or inferiority. Maybe you worry that you are “less than” your peers, because they do not have assistance but you do.
While it can be difficult to manage two “limbo” places: (1) childhood--adulthood; (2) having a disability--being closer to neuro-typical, there are some things that may help to resolve the tension.
Here are some tips for young adults with high-functioning autism who are struggling with accepting assistance from others and who are also working toward independence:
Keep in mind that everyone is different. No two people have the same exact set of circumstances, needs, desires, skills, motivations, or goals (among many other things). Sure, you can look to your peers as a benchmark of what you could be doing or where you could be in your current life stage. This helps us to become and stay motivated. But do not look at what others are doing as the absolute law of what you should be doing in your own life.
Practice and develop your skills. I do not know of any person who was automatically perfect at any sort of activity or occupation. Sure, maybe they already had the raw talent or a knack for a certain skill – but it wasn’t perfect. These skills needed to be developed, and most often with the support of other people. Even as a therapist, I’ve had to practice and develop my skills with others’ assistance: I have had to shadow my supervisor and other experienced therapists; I have had professors and supervisors coach me through my therapy sessions; I have had my supervisor be present in therapy sessions with me; I have had professors and supervisors watch videos of me conducting therapy; and even now as an intern, I still meet weekly with my supervisor to help me to develop my skills more.
Set small goals and use them as building blocks. You can even have a long-term goal, and then break it down step-by-step of what needs to happen to get to that ultimate goal. Use those steps as your “small goals” and building blocks. As described above, my experience in developing my therapy skills involved receiving assistance and support from other people. Also, notice that their involvement in my skill-development gradually decreased. My professors’ and supervisors’ assistance became less and less when I showed that I was able to reach my small goals over time.
Communicate and collaborate with your assistance/support staff. Let your support staff know what your goals are and what skills you would like to develop. Identify what support is necessary for those small goals/building blocks. As you progress toward your ultimate goal, the assistance from support staff can become less and less, because you are developing your skills.
Take the time to evaluate progress toward your goal. Can you or others see positive changes? Take a look at what you are doing to see if it is still on track with your goal. Are you remembering to write down your homework assignments, or do you need a reminder from your aide? Are you keeping up with completing homework assignments in a timely manner, or are you losing track of time on the computer? If you find that you are not on track with your goal and you have difficulty refocusing, then maybe you need to take a step back to a previous small goal. This is both normal and okay to take a step back and work on previously-learned skills. It can help with moving forward and creating your building blocks to your ultimate goal. If you need to, change up your plan by creating new goals that better fit your desired future.
Becoming independent is a process that takes hard work, patience, and openness to receiving support from others. As you progress through your small goals/building blocks, your need for help will gradually decrease because you will have gained or developed the necessary skills that allow you to be more independent. Keep in mind: the road to independence starts with some sort of assistance.
Marlene Elizalde is a MFT Intern working at ASD Consultancy. An agency that specializes in helping people with Autism and their families lead happy, fulfilling lives. She can be contacted at:firstname.lastname@example.org. 562-556-1493. www.asdhelp.com.