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.
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?
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?