The unnavigated twenteens of the autistic emerging adult

Guest post by Alana Sheldahl

It’s an early January day and I am the arch-type harried stay-at-home mom. I had one young person who needed to see her doctor today, so I drove her there. After that appointment, we had a nice mother-daughter lunch together. I have my to do list and I set my alarm for six in the morning so that I could get up and accomplish my personal goals.

One of those goals today was to make a big start on writing this article, and in typical “harried mom” fashion, my start on it is much later in the day than I anticipated. Where DID that extra hour and a half disappear to?

The younglings are hanging out downstairs with some entertainment. No-one is in school because of the holiday winter break. And so, when I walked in the door after the doctor appointment and the ubiquitous stop at the grocery store for forty dollars worth of stuff because we are out of milk, I got swept into the general domestic demands of having young people needing my help and support with various things:

  • I helped find a lost item.
  • I put supper in the instant pot to cook.
  • I fixed a snack and washed some grapes for everyone to enjoy.

It is also my name day today, so I baked something special for myself (no one else to do it) and arranged the daisies I bought to mark the occasion.

The uncharted territory of the twenteens

Sounds like a pretty typical mom day with kids, doesn’t it? The difference is, my “kids” are in their twenties. OK, the youngest is 19…but she is allistic. The others: On the autism spectrum. As a result, my life is on the slow track. Our whole family’s life is on the slow track, because autism is a “developmental delay,” and so normal milestones are reached later in life.

And the twenties – I have coined the term “twenteens” – are uncharted territory. Almost all the autism information one sees published is focused on younger children. Having been born in the early and mid nineties, my people are on the front edge of the so called “autism epidemic.” They were diagnosed in middle school and their childhoods were one of familial frustration and floundering. Many of their autistic peers are self-diagnosed. IEP was barely a word back in the day that we knew about. We muddled along. And here we are.

Talking to young adults with autism

Here we are in the uncharted waters of young adulthood with autism. In order to be able to write a bit more coherently on what some of those experiences look like, I took the liberty of interviewing my young people and also some other 20-somethings with autism who are friends of our family.

Of the autistic young adults I gathered information from, one is officially disabled due to co-occuring health problems. The others are either in school, graduated, or working at least part time. All but one are living at home when not on campus. The one who is finally launched only did so six months ago in the latter part of their 20s.

Common themes

What are the stressors that these autistic young adults are communicating to me? Here are some of the themes that emerged:

  • Slower processing speeds about adult tasks that require executive function.
  • Feeling overwhelmed by forms and paperwork and financial tasks.
  • Struggling with social interaction and with reading between the lines in work situations.
  • Having less confidence or ability to navigate the world of dating.

Jobs lost and found

One young person shared about doing great on job interviews, being a master masker, but then struggling to actually do the job due to executive function struggles. This struggle would end in job termination. He worked through a series of entry level or dead end jobs, until he finally found his niche as a teacher, where he says he can monologue on his favorite topic to a captive audience for a set period of time each hour, and he is doing well and is appreciated for the good work he is doing.

Social interaction is a struggle for many, and more than one of my interviewees shared that they were fired from jobs because these issues. One young person was not able to perform small talk and smiling in customer interactions at a fast food restaurant. But she went on to find a better paying job caring for nursing home residents who are much easier to speak with.

Another young person likes to do tasks that are very well spelled out and have a definite framework for completion, but absolutely flounders in softer situations that involve more interpersonal interaction. This young person, typical of many autists, is drawn to library science and has found herself working in that field as a page, and now as a college student, with firm plans to pursue it as a career.

Honest answers

One young person struggles with feeling like a liar when communicating social niceties. The question “What’s up?” gets a very honest and accurate: “The sky.” and “How are you?” causes a panic. This is the same person who, instead of wishing “Happy New Year” prefers “Lugubrious Calendrical Rotation,” not being of the naturally happy sort himself.

The difficulty of romance

A common difficulty for everyone I interviewed was knowing what to do when friendships move beyond the familiar and into the uncharted waters of romance. The social rules of simple friendship (hard enough to learn!) change, and this is a very difficult area to navigate. Additionally, knowing how to create that shift out of the friend zone and into a romantic relationship was beyond each of the ones who expressed interest in such things.

Some of the autistic young adults I interviewed expressed a desire for a celibate life. If the blossoming of friendships in their 20s is any indication, however, I hold out hope that as young adults with autism mature, they will gain the skills to allow them to find a life partner, should they so desire. Many autistic adults have the best marriages with other autistic adults.

How to get to “launch”

When one of my young people came home from college after my husband died, I naturally insisted that this person go find a job.

After a few unsuccessful and VERY stressed out job interviews, I recognized the truth: At the age of 19 this person was not quite READY for a first job (some are, some are not). The stress levels at this parental demand were akin to me asking a 14 year old to go find a job.

Individuals vary, of course. But as I have slowed down and shifted my own expectations, I have started asking “What does this young person need in terms of support from me in order to be moving in the direction of independent adulthood?” As a result, I have been able to better define the tasks we need to accomplish together and the types of mom-supports required with the eventual soft target goal of “launch.”

  • One autistic young adult might do just fine in college, living on campus with a cafeteria for meals, but unlike other college students, do better in a single room as opposed to a roommate situation.
  • Another autistic young adult might find such a life utterly overwhelming and need to be living at home in order not to fail all those college courses.
  • Yet another autistic young adult might find herself too easily sucked into the party life at college and not have the ability to say no to peer pressure and do better in a religious school.
  • And yet another will choose a non-academic path.

The bottom line: people in their twenteens need more time

Twenteens with autism are slower to be ready to move out of the parental home, slower to have the financial capability to do so and less likely to be ready to walk out the door at age 18…or perhaps even at age 25. For several of them, driving came at a later age with more struggle and practice needed, as well.

A mother’s role

As a parent of twenteens on the autism spectrum, it behooves me to slow down, and listen, and to continue to be available and supportive of them. It is vital, though, to treat them like the young adults they are, with respect, and to develop an adult relationship with them, as opposed to being a helicopter mom who swoops in to rescue all the time.

But it also is important for me to be supportive and to know that there is an alternate time line happening in these young people’s lives, and that it will be OK. It really will be OK.

Our autistic young folks will grow and thrive at their own pace. I call it Hobbit time, because Hobbits mature at age 33.

Autistic adults can have families. Autistic adults can have careers. Autistic adults can find love and work and all those things. There are writers, teachers, librarians, computer programmers, film makers, plant experts, care givers, and so much more who are autistic adults.

And one’s 20s are a decade for growing, maturing and eventually for leaving home and starting one’s own life… maybe a bit later, but it can and does happen.

And for mom: that empty nest will either happen, or it won’t. The point is, each of our young people are unique and a gift, with or without autism… and as the “epidemic kids” mature we will likely be seeing more talk about the twenteens….meanwhile, put your ear to the ground and start listening to the voices of young adults with autism. They are speaking. Parents… we need to be listening.

About Alana Sheldahl

Alana Sheldahl is an Orthodox Christian who spies on her church through her kitchen window. When she’s not there, you’ll find her caring for the multivarious needs of her tribe or kayaking down a silent river.

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