Where are all the autistic adults? It’s a question that’s being asked more frequently these days. As some of the media-driven hysteria about the autism “epidemic” wanes, parents of autistic children are beginning to think about the future. What’s ahead for their children when they grow up? How much education will they be capable of? Is marriage and children a realistic possibility? What kinds of jobs or careers can they be successful at? But one question that’s rarely been asked until recently, maybe the most important one, is: where are the autistic adults who can serve as models and mentors for a younger generation?
When stereotypes dominate, such as the one that autism is always a catastrophic, life-destroying condition, there’s little reason to think that an autistic adult could offer life-enhancing insights or serve as a guide through a confusing world. There’s no reason to wonder if any of the psychologists, lawyers, economists, or artists around you are autistic or have Asperger’s, autism’s milder expression. Autistics are either doing repetitive tasks in sheltered workshops, or they’re friendless geeks with only their computers to keep them company. Wrong.
The amount of information now available about adults with autism and Asperger’s is enormous and increasing rapidly. Most of that increase comes, not from professionals: therapists, researchers, etc., but from adult autistics who are blogging, and writing books and articles. The most insightful information about living with autism comes out of personal experience. The majority of individuals on the autistic spectrum overcome many of their early disabilities, through proper treatment of specific problems, through the natural maturation of their neurology, and through learning. Many, all along the spectrum, are turning their minds to the description and analysis of their experiences.
Take note of “analysis.” Most autobiographical writing is descriptive: what happened and when, who was involved, how the author felt about it all. Autistic memoirs and autobiographies are unique in revealing a major cognitive attribute: detailed, and sometimes obsessive, analysis. This is a resource that no amount of theorizing or studies by professionals can equal. The work of academic researchers is invaluable in many ways, but it has two significant flaws. It’s almost always the work of non-autistics who, however well intentioned they may be, observe and interpret autism through their “neurotypical” filters. Even more important, perhaps, is the simple fact that almost all research, all theorizing about autism is based on children, who are at the very beginning of their developmental path.
The parents of autistic children, and those children themselves, when they are beginning to move out of the shelter of home into the trials of adolescence and young adulthood, need more than studies and theories. They need to know how others like themselves have made it into a satisfying and useful adulthood. They need to know what difficulties have to be overcome and how to deal with them, using the advantages that often come along with autism. They need to know that they don’t have to pretend to be something they’re not, or even worse, lose themselves and become something they’re not.
Resources — a few accomplished adults on the autism spectrum
Kamran Nazeer – government policy advisor, author of Send in the Idiots
Bill Stillman – blogger, author, lecturer, consultant
Dawn Prince-Hughes – primatologist, author of Songs of the Gorilla Nation
Mark Foster – blogger, prof of sociology, Asperger’s coach
Brian R. King – consultant, writer