Does autism change with age and maturity?
No and Yes.
The level of impact an individual with autism experiences may appear to change from time to time. The reality is that the autism itself is not believed to change; autism reflects a set of specific physical attributes and functioning of the brain neurology. That does not preclude ANY change…there is absolutely the possibility of improving neuro-flexibility and functioning (that’s why we practice things), but the underlying autistic structure itself remains the same.
The change that is most often seen is the individual’s response to the autism. They can become more rigid, difficult and struggle more, making it appear that the autism is getting worse, or they can learn to adapt, compensate and learn to manage their autism in a way that is less contrary to the world, more pleasant and successful. The latter probably won’t happen without autism-educated therapy and appropriate family support.
Growing Out of Autism
I have heard it suggested that some people seem to “grow out” of autism.
Parents often describe being able to find ways to manage their child’s autism when they are young, in grade school and perhaps even in high school or beginning college. This often results in getting lulled into a sense of security that they have conquered the issues related to autism, only to find that at some point (which is different for everyone depending on circumstances) the child/young adult/adult with ASD hits the wall, and things fall apart.
Life gets more complicated as we age. More is demanded of us in terms of managing our environment, delivering on the expectations of the world, and behaving in ways that are deemed successful and appropriate. For many individuals on the autism spectrum, at some point, those increasing demands become overwhelming and that often results in what appears to be crisis, out of control behavior, giving up by the individual, or even complete shutdown.
That is the point of desperation which sends so many families looking for new ways to understand, manage and help the individual with ASD.
The idea of “growing out” of autism is a misnomer.
The reality is that an autistic brain has developed in a way that is different and unique in response to the autism, and that probably never changes. That by no means precludes the ability to improve the life experience of the individual with ASD and their family!
Of course, through therapy and work, you can create increased levels of neurological and behavioral flexibility, understanding of the world, and the ability to navigate more successfully on a functional level.
Increased functionality and life satisfaction is the reason to do therapy! Autism-educated therapy does not cure the autism (which in my opinion neither needs to be, nor can be “cured”), but it does help the individual and the family surrounding the individual to find ways to compensate for struggles where needed, find appropriate and comfortable avenues of behavior that can be sustained, and ultimately live more peacefully with autism.
Growing Into Autism
So rather than expecting our loved ones to grow out of autism, I am suggesting that we help our loved ones with ASD grow INTO their autism.
The first step may be to suspend some of our previous judgements and conclusions and begin to open our thinking to new possibilities. I recently spoke to a mom who told me her 2 sons weren’t diagnosed until a little bit later (3rd grade and 5th grade), and that they were considered to be seriously cognitively impaired. That doesn’t quite stack up. If they could fly under the radar until 8 or 9 years old, perhaps there are some mis-assumptions about them.
Unfortunately, we still have large gaps in the experience level and accuracy of diagnosticians, and IQ tests are not accurate for individuals with autism. There is an inherent social component in successfully taking an IQ test which slants these traditional measurements against the individual on the spectrum.
While I can’t take on the huge topic of motivation here, suffice it to say that being motivated (or not motivated as the case may be) has a huge impact on the perceived ability of the individual with autism. I suspect that is coloring the situation for this family.
This same mom had found effective ways to manage using strict routine and rules, but that is no longer working effectively as her kids are now in their late teens. Even though she learned quite a bit of good strategy that was appropriate for her younger kids on the spectrum, she is now at her wits end trying to figure out how to manage with young adults.
This is where I suggest we begin to help our teens, young adults and adults with ASD “grow INTO” their autism. In other words, help them learn how their autism influences their thinking and what to do to navigate life more successfully.
If you are feeling overwhelmed, take heart! This is doable with autism-educated therapy strategies.
For example, we need to teach boundaries, and then help the individual learn to navigate those boundaries. Unlike those of us who are neuro-typical and automatically respond appropriately to boundaries because we are socially-based thinkers, just being able to identify boundaries and requirements alone is not enough for someone with ASD. If you would like to learn the basics of helping an individual grow into their autism, please review one of our trainings. (Click here to learn more about our Training for Parents here.)
Flying Under the Radar
It’s really beneficial for those of us who are involved in supporting individuals with autism to understand the concept of “flying under the radar.”
As mentioned earlier, autism doesn’t really get better or get worse. It can become more pronounced and more disruptive of life, and it can also become less pronounced and less disruptive of life. (If you are asking how to control which way that is going, the question will be answered in the next section.)
Most individuals with ASD prefer to fly under the radar.
They would rather avoid anything that will necessitate difficult or psychologically painful social interactions and just be free to do what they want, when they want it. Like phone calls, homework, writing in their planner, paying their bills, getting to class on time, asking the teacher a question, finding someone to fix something that is broken, asking for help of any kind, or any one of the other life circumstances that become more frequent as we mature and become independent.
Just a reminder, this trait – the desire to avoid- is NOT an issue of character. It is not lack of caring, it is not done as an intentional affront to you or to any other authority. Rather it is a logical out growth of the desire to manage their own overwhelm, and cope with the extreme difficulty or effort required for social interaction in general. (Click here to read more about Autism As a Social Disability.)
This tendency to want to fly under the radar can impact those around the individual with ASD in a number of ways. First it can give us the false sense that things are progressing well. Often as parents we find out later those things aren’t progressing well at all.
Sometimes an individual has incredible talent in a certain area, and so is able to mask the autism by presenting that successful side of themselves as the predominant caricature.
We can be blindsided by the autism when the individual is flying under the radar. For example, one family I knew had a son who was able to manage high school, get into college and even go off to college successfully. Once he got there, he could not mange the lifestyle independently! He was on academic probation and out of school in one semester.
That is a very common story. What appeared to be a young adult able to manage the necessary skills for a college student, was actually an individual with ASD who hit the wall when they got to school, had to establish and maintain a new routine, and overcome the new challenges involved in independent living. Most often this story also involves an underlying incident where the student gets off track by accident and can never get back on track – they never recover. Like missing a day of class because they are sick, and then never going back to class. Upon examination, these incidents appear surprising and impossible to those of us who are not on the spectrum!
Finally, be aware of the frequently experienced sense of gaslighting that parents, friends, teachers, etc. may feel in their relationships with those on the spectrum. Often this is a derivative of the individual’s tendency to say what you want to hear in order to dispense with your attention as quickly as possible.
For example, if you have ever sat down with someone on the spectrum and discussed a problem in great detail, and come to some agreement about how you will move forward, and then 2 days later its as if you never had the conversation, that is the autism.
I have heard it a thousand times. A parent explains in depth why something needs to be done differently, the child says “OK, mom or dad!” and then nothing happens. This is very often a communication issue in which the child never really understood or absorbed the concept of what the parent was saying, and simply ended the communication in the fastest way possible, by agreeing to whatever was said.
What makes the difference between whether an individual is on a spiral upward, with positive, therapeutic growth, moving in a more functional, independent, and happier direction or a downward, increasingly negative, rigid, and less functional direction?
Probably a few things:
- The desire of the individual to improve their life and their desire to feel better.
- The willingness of the family to support the individual by educating themselves.
- Life circumstances surrounding the individual and family.
- The access to the right kind of information that makes working with an individual with ASD effective.
- The ability to consistently and successfully deliver accurate feedback to the individual and help them to recognize, understand, and execute on it.
“Autism-educated” therapy is based on the five ingredients listed above. The number one, most important aspect, other than the desire and willingness of the participants, is the access to the right kind of information, how to deliver it, and how to teach it. Autism-educated therapy requires the participation of family, teachers, etc. The individual cannot do it alone, nor can a family send their child for therapy without following up consistently across all life venues.
Autism-educated therapy understands the world view, life approach, thinking patterns and difficulties that are part and parcel of life with an autistic brain neurology. It is non-judgmental, nurturing, and appropriate for all ages. It is especially effective for individuals who are teens, young adults, and adults who are experiencing trouble being functionally successful in life, or who are minimally successful and at a great cost in terms of psychological pain they experience. It focuses on teaching functional skills, and social skills are built as a by-product of better functionality; it’s primary drive is to help the individual become happy and functional.