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  • Sarah Nannery

#Adulting & Autism

Updated: Oct 25, 2019

The other day, I saw a plea for help online from a concerned mother of a young man with Autism. In essence, her son, in his early 20s, was still living at home, unable to keep a job for more than a few months at a time, and coping with his perceived failure in life by playing computer games all day. The constant gaming, of course, only exacerbated his mother's concern, because she saw someone who wasn't applying himself, who wasn't trying to get a job, who wasn't willing to participate in driving his own life.

This is SUCH a common occurrence with young adults on the spectrum. I see pleas like this from parents of 20-somethings with ASD everywhere.

Any parent, trying to guide their child into life as an adult, will be concerned by behavior that is not conducive to #adulting. A parent thinks about what will happen to their child once they are no longer around to take care of them. The transition to independence can be hugely stressful - for both the parent and the young adult.

Because I have seen so many parents struggling with this same or similar scenario, I decided to take the words that I shared with this particular parent and post them here, with some alterations to protect identities, in the hope that others might find it a helpful perspective.

As a parent, of course I relate to the mother who reached out for help. But in fact, I relate more closely with her son and what he might be going through, as someone with ASD who went through my own struggles transitioning into adulthood. A neurotypical parent might see someone who is lazy or entitled or unmotivated, and think to themselves, how did I raise a person like this? When in fact, there are many things going on under the surface for someone with ASD, that someone who is neurotypical, even that person's parent, wouldn't know or understand without the help of another perspective.

Here is, more-or-less, what I shared:


Your son is not lying about applying for jobs because he wants to fool you, or because he wants to be manipulative or get away with things. He is not trying to avoid responsibility or take advantage of you in any way. Your son is in pain. It’s a pain that can be very intense sometimes, and it’s something that even many independent adults with Autism, including myself, still don’t have many words to describe. At his age, he may not even fully realize that he is in pain compared to other people, because it can be a fairly constant, all-consuming state. For me, and likely for your son, it’s a pain that came from finding myself unable, for reasons I couldn’t fully explain, to meet the expectations the world – and my loved ones, especially – placed on me. Again and again, over and over, I would fail, and not understand why or how. And again and again, the people I loved would be (understandably) disappointed, frustrated, confused, hurt, etc. It is devastating and debilitating to experience that over and over again, and to not know how to fix it.

And then, it becomes a cycle, because just like a human body creates an influx of white blood cells to go attack the site of an infection, your son’s body creates an influx of neuro-chemicals to attack the pain – driving him to do the things he knows will most effectively ease the pain, like playing video games. Which frustrates you even more. For me, growing up, it was reading. Hours and hours upon hours of reading. My mother used to say to me, “Well I’m glad that you’re reading, but life is passing you by!” And in my head I would be like, “Good, let it pass by, it hurts too much.”

That said, there are other things your son can do that will produce the same neuro-chemicals and ease the pain as playing video games does. He just might not have experienced them yet. He could try volunteering for organizations or causes that he thinks might be interesting or important. Volunteer work can often lead to a vocation, especially if he finds something that he is intrinsically motivated to continue (something that produces the same type of feel-good chemicals as the video games).

For a person with Autism, that intrinsic motivation is often the key to a sustained vocation. External motivation – coming from bosses/authority figures or even parents – is difficult for someone with Autism to find motivating, because it is often a source of that same pain of not being able to meet expectations. Entry-level customer service jobs are the worst – I think – for young people with Autism – because they often require adhering to external arbitrary authority, frequent customer and coworker social interaction, menial tasks that don’t engage him intellectually – all things that continually add to the pain he experiences on a daily basis. Of course he doesn’t want to send out 5 applications a day to jobs that he knows will feel like a nightmare. And yet, entry-level customer service jobs are the most often “first job” of a person’s life, so it can be difficult to pursue a different track.

Two things that might help, aside from perhaps engaging in some volunteer activities –

  1. Finding an understanding mentor, like an independent practitioner or consultant or professional in a field closely aligned to his interests, who would be willing to take him on – even if it’s part-time or as an intern or volunteer-based at first – so he can gain work experience in a field of interest with someone who understands his need for internal motivation and clear expectations. He needs some wins, to help produce those pain-killing chemicals in his brain, doing something other than the video games.

  2. Online classes – it sounds like college itself might have been too overwhelming for your son – the social expectations that come along with college can be intensely difficult for a young person with Autism – but you could see if he might find some advanced-level courses he could take online, to learn more about things that interest him, and move toward a career, without the social interaction or pressures of traditional college classes.

Ultimately, you know your son best and your continued love and support will make a big difference.


#Adulting is hard. For all of us - on or off the spectrum. And for many different reasons, which we accept and respect as part of the overall human experience.

Similarly, we must learn to accept and respect the fact that a young person with ASD faces a higher barrier to entry into the neurotypical adult world - the same way they experience higher barriers all through childhood. Autism is a life-long way of being. It does not suddenly disappear the moment a person turns 18 years old. Expecting a young person with Autism to be able to transition into adulthood the same way a neurotypical young person would is not only unjust, it likely will not work.

As the field and the world continue to expand beyond childhood Autism, I am hopeful that more conversations and experiences like these will open up more resources, tools, guides, and awareness for parents and young adults alike.

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