Freedom and Fraternity (Houses)

When is an autistic person ready for adulthood? When is he or she ready for, and mature enough to handle, the decisions and responsibilities that accompany autonomous adult life?

The question isn’t clear-cut with neurotypical youth, either.  Attitudes vary, and laws can be inconsistent (in most of the U.S., young people can be criminally prosecuted as adults at 14 and drive cars at 16, but can’t drink alcohol until 21).  But for most of the important matters, throughout the U.S., one becomes an adult at age 18.  That’s when people can vote, sign contracts, control their own finances, make their own medical decisions, and generally govern their lives as they choose without the need for parental permission.  Not coincidentally, it’s around this age that most people graduate high school, and many move out of their parents’ homes for higher education, jobs, romantic partners, or families of their own.  Despite ambiguities, despite legal inconsistencies, and despite a rather disturbing trend among the middle and upper classes of retaining a childlike social status well into the mid-twenties, nevertheless, for most people, in most important ways, 18 remains the magic age.  And barring premature death, nearly all neurotypical young people are guaranteed the assurance of receiving the status, rights, privileges, and responsibilities of adulthood sooner or later.

When discussing autistic youth, however, particularly concerning the much-ballyhooed issue of post-high-school “transition,” the age-of-adulthood question starts to be framed as a “if” instead of a “when.” Milestones such as dating, independent travel, medical autonomy, living alone, marriage, and parenthood are referred to as hypotheticals, if not as unattainable ideals. Parents openly reprimand themselves for “dreaming” that their children will ever become “independent.” Transition programs, therefore, tend to center, not on the transition from childhood to adulthood, but from minor-childhood to adult-childhood. Extended high school, care centers, guardianship, therapy, always therapy—autistic people, apparently, never outgrow the need for therapeutic training. The fact that many autistic young adults choose to drop out of therapy after high school is considered a “service gap” rather than, perhaps, evidence that behavioral therapy is an undesirable experience which people tend to avoid once they’re old enough to have a choice in the matter (this data was collected from a survey of “parents and guardians” of autistic adults, which says quite a lot in itself). Autism is a lifelong condition, so the “treatments” for it are expected also to be lifelong, until the ultimate (and unattainable) goal of “cured” or “indistinguishable from peers” is achieved. The autistic person’s desires and goals, of course, are irrelevant. By virtue of remaining autistic, he or she is presumed to remain childlike and therefore incompetent to determine his or her best interests.

Independence is itself a confusing concept, because the word, in this context, refers to two different things:
Financial independence—having earned income high enough to be financially self-supporting without assistance from family or the state
Legal/Social independence—having the right to make one’s own decisions about one’s own life.

People who lack financial independence include:

      Unemployed people
      Low-wage or part-time workers whose wages are not sufficient to meet their basic living expenses
      People in bankruptcy
      Homemakers and stay-at-home parents
      Most students
      Retirees living on retirement benefits
      Physically disabled people living on disability benefits
      Heirs and heiresses living on family income
      People receiving state assistance (“welfare”) for low-income individuals (such as food stamps or subsidized housing)

This is not an exhaustive list, and the exact boundaries of it may be debated—for instance, some people would argue that retirees living on Social Security retirement benefits are, in fact, financially independent because they paid into the system as workers; other people might argue that people who live off capital investments are not really “earning” their money through their own effort—but such debates aside, let us leave it at the simple statement: there are many adults who, through one circumstance or another, are living at least partially on income other than their own individual earnings. I’m affixing no moral judgment to this status (Note that I happen to be in one of these categories: homemaker/stay-at-home parent), merely noting its existence.

Okay? Okay.

There are also people who lack legal/social independence—that is, who lack the freedom (either on paper or in practice) to make basic decisions about their lives such as where they go, with whom they associate, whether and with whom they have romantic relationships, what they eat and drink, what medications they take, and what medical procedures they undergo. In the U.S., these people include:

      Children under age 18
      People serving criminal sentences in jail or prison
      Disabled adults under guardianship
      Disabled adults living in institutions, group homes, or nursing homes
      People in psychiatric hospitals or wards
      Psychiatrically-labeled people living under community treatment orders (“outpatient commitment”)
      Adults in abusive relationships*

        *Note: a situation in which someone—say, a spouse, partner, family member, or representative payee—uses financial control in order to coerce compliance over a financial dependent concerning a non-financial matter is, by definition , an abusive relationship.

    Clearly, financial independence and legal/social independence are not synonymous. In fact, for neurotypical or presumed-neurotypical people, they’re largely unrelated. It would be ludicrous to declare that because a 70 year old man is living on retirement benefits, he should be forbidden from dating. No one would claim that because a college student lives on student loans and family support, her diet should be monitored. If a wife of a stay-at-home dad declared that because she was the family breadwinner, she could force her husband to take certain medication, the relationship would rightly be decried as abusive.

    In neurodivergent adults (and those presumed to be neurodivergent whether they are or not, such as seriously physically disabled people or elderly people), however, lack of full financial independence is routinely cited as proof of cognitive incompetence and thus justification for infringement of legal/social independence. Parents continue to retain control over the lives of their grown autistic offspring (either by official court order, through the institution of guardianship, or through unofficial controls that would be considered abusive if the grown children were neurotypical) and hold out full-time employment as one of several assorted and largely arbitrary “milestones” their children must meet before they can be considered “ready” for the same freedoms neurotypical youth take for granted upon their 18th birthdays.

    But aren’t there some adults who genuinely need to be under guardianship?


    How can I tell whether my teenage Child With Autism should become his own guardian when he turns 18? How will I know whether he’s ready?

    Good question.

    Is there a residential college near you?

    Go to a frathouse. Check it out.

    If you go to a frathouse, you will see lots of (mostly neurotypical) young adults engaging in blatantly irresponsible behavior. Excess drinking, reckless sex, spending too much money, possibly some illegal drug use. Yet legally, the young people doing these things are indisputably adults with the freedom to be as irresponsible as they want to be.

    Because for neurotypicals, adulthood is a right that comes automatically, not a privilege that has to be earned. We like to pretend otherwise, when we lecture our children about Adult Responsibility, that growing up doesn’t mean getting to do whatever one wants. That adulthood means responsibility as well as freedom. But it doesn’t, really. There are plenty of irresponsible adults, and they still have the legal right to blow their money on beer and lottery tickets. It’s only for disabled youth that adult freedoms are contingent upon whether the individuals are considered “safe” or “mature enough to handle them.”

    I can’t let my 18-year-old Child With Autism make his own medical decisions, he’d go off his Risperdal!

    Well, there are plenty of neurotypical 18 year olds making medical decisions that may be unwise. So what? They have the legal freedom to do so.

    I can’t let my 22-year-old Child With Autism control his own money; he’d just spend it all!

    So what? There are neurotypical 22 year olds spending all their money irresponsibly, too. They have the legal freedom to do so.

    I can’t let my 23-year-old Daughter With Autism date; someone might take sexual advantage of her!

    Many neurotypical young adults enter into unwise romantic or sexual relationships, some of which they later regret. So what? They have the legal freedom to do so.

    It’s a double standard, and a particularly egregious one at that—not only are neurotypical youth not held to standards of self-sufficient employment and arbitrary “maturity” before automatically becoming their own guardians upon maturity, but these standards are far more likely to be unattainable for autistic youth, because of unequal access to employment and education (to say nothing of the emotional effects of years of learned helplessness). So before you decide that your child needs guardianship, institutionalization, group home residency, supervision, or court-ordered medication, go check out a frathouse. Remember that all the people there are legally classified as free and autonomous adults. Is your child’s fondness for Pokemon really so immature, by comparison?

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3 Responses to Freedom and Fraternity (Houses)

  1. Rose says:

    Helicopter parenting on steroids.

    There has to be a certain level of teaching for many things. If you never prepare your child to handle money…it may not be his fault if he spends it all.

    A lot of auties don’t drive—it’s far too stimulating with too many decisions having to be made quickly, taking into account the dance you are doing with other drivers. We practiced a year and one half.

    I SEE what you are saying, though. Some can’t give up control. I want to give up control, but like the driving, I want him to be ready. And I do my part to get him ready. (I do it gladly, too. He is my joy.)

    The flip side of what you are saying is, some kids get thrown out before they are ready. My son is 19. He makes his own decisions . And I fade away. He may not be ready to leave home until he is 25. He can stay here as long as he needs to. I know he wants to leave, but he isn’t ready yet. He would tell you that.

    We were just talking the other day…so many kids get thrown into adulthood by having kids. Ready or not.

    I know what you are saying…we don’t control our kids, we help them to be who they are meant to be by knowing when to bow out of their lives, graciously.

    • adkyriolexy says:

      I think “readiness” is a questionable concept. To a certain extent, you can’t know whether you’re “ready” to do something until you do it… and most people are more “ready” than they think they are.

  2. Rose says:

    That’s a good point. I would like to kick his butt out…(kidding…kind of…)
    He’s got to get a job, first. He refuses a disability allowance from the gov’t., although I think he would qualify.

    He had such a difficult time in school, in the regular classroom, that in adulthood I’ve made allowances for him to find his own way. (Looking back, it was abusive to demand he “tow the line” just like any other kid…he worked hours on homework.) I’d like to think I have different perspective and endpoint than the parent who helicopters, but maybe I am just more subtle—using neediness as a form of control.

    I am part of CEC (Council for Exceptional Children, mainly a parent/teachers forum) Linked-in… I was thinking of sending it to you (although I don’t really “know” you, but our paths have crossed) and then I saw you had commented.

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