As I’ve been working on research to support activities being done at work, I am noting an alarming trend. Most supports, groups, and initiatives are only focusing on Autistic children. Although it is necessary to support children as they grow on their path to adulthood, there is a terrifying precipice at the end of the road. Once someone becomes an Autistic adult, they are left under-supported and dangling without a safety net. This appears to be due to the fact that Autistic adults are not the ones featured in fundraising or educational materials about Autism. Rather, people tend towards the images of young children, lost in their own worlds or screaming and crying in meltdown. This is a damaging and dangerous trend.
Autism does not simply vanish at adulthood. The belief that Autistic adults do not need similar supports after the age of 18 or 21 is not only false, it can have devastating consequences. Consider the number of Autistic individuals who suffer from chronic mental illnesses such as anxiety or depression. 85% of individuals with Autism have been diagnosed with at least 1 anxiety disorder. In addition, people with Autism are 5-10 times more likely to die by suicide than any other group in the world. In fact, it is one of the leading causes of death in Autistic adults and is a large contributor to why the average life expectancy for an Autistic person is only 55 years.
Looking at these numbers and the fact that the numbers skyrocket after the age of 18, the fact that the supports do not exist for Autistic adults becomes a primary suspect. The sensory needs of the child do not disappear once they reach adulthood. They will not suddenly be able to “handle” loud noises or bright light, or no longer need special clothing to alleviate the severe pain caused by their sensory issues. The social skill issues will not vanish, making them easily able to navigate the adult world of dating, marriage, and career. The executive functioning deficits that may be present are not suddenly solved once the 21st birthday has occurred. Rather, Autistic people are basically thrown out into the streets on their own, in a world that believes there is “nothing wrong” with them and they should be able to just “deal” with it and act like everyone else.
I hypothesize that the consequences of the lack of education combined with the lack of supports and these types of thinking are why the unemployment rate is so high even in qualified individuals, the mental illness rate is so high, the homelessness issues are so prevalent, and the abuse and divorce rates are higher than other groups. Someone who is Autistic would excel at their career if they could get past the social requirements in the interview process and get the sensory and social supports at work. They would be able to keep their depression and anxiety under control if there were supports that took both their mental illnesses and their Autism into consideration, instead of attempting to separate them. They could maintain adequate housing if they could find and keep a job that supported them. They could navigate the tricky world of relationships and avoid being taken advantage of and abused if there were places they could turn where they were treated with respect and consideration.
Instead, as it’s always been, it continues that a few lucky individuals (like myself) find that diamond, that gem of a workplace that gives them what they need to excel. The majority are left to scramble, claw, and fight to get even the smallest bit of consideration. Everywhere they are told they are broken, wrong, at fault. This becomes internalized and unbearable. It is no wonder so many choose to die once and for all rather than to die a bit every day under this pain.
We need to do something to change the tide. We need to recognize that Autistic adults exist, and MUST exist because the Autistic children grow up! We need to see that Autism is a true spectrum of abilities and disabilities and that what worked for one may be horrible for another. We need to put supports in place so that it is an EQUAL playing field for all. It is not that we want better than others. We just want the same chances everyone without Autism get. We must do better! 1 in 55 people is Autistic. I am. My spouse is. All of my children are. My best friends are. Many of my colleagues are. None of us fit the “mold” of the Autistic person. All of us deserve a chance to thrive.