On the Brink of Adulthood: How Autism Affects the Whole Family

Autism, as the experts are fond of saying, is a lifelong disability. A child who has moderate or severe autism will need a great deal of extra care throughout childhood and adolescence. But there is also the likelihood that he will also need guidance and supervision as an adult.

My son is autistic. He has the body and appetites of a teenager, but the mind of a little boy. He still reads Dr Seuss books and watches Caillou. Very soon he will face the task of transitioning from childhood into adulthood, but without the benefit of an adult understanding of the world.

Challenges for the Autistic Teen

Autistic teenagers face a lot of the same challenges that other teens do. Their bodies change. They grow tall and gangly, get pimples, start to really smell when they sweat. Their voices deepen. That one really threw my son! He loved to sing all the high-pitched female roles in songs from Disney movies like Mulan, and suddenly his voice would crack and he couldn’t reach the notes anymore! He talked in a falsetto for almost a year after his voice started to change!

But teens who have autism also face some unique struggles that can be pretty difficult to cope with:

  • Autistic kids like my son are maturing sexually in body but their minds aren’t keeping up. So his hormones are creating an interest in things he can’t understand, and he still doesn’t really have the vocabulary to talk about it.
  • He still has limitations with his fine motors skills and his ability to copy gestures. So he’s growing facial hair and will need to learn how to shave. But it will be difficult for him to hold a safety razor properly or to understand Daddy’s advice about not cutting himself when he shaves.
  • Like any teenager, autistic kids want to enjoy some independence as they grow older. My son is fascinated with cars and got very excited when his older sister got her learner’s permit. He wants to know when he can drive, but his autism impacts on both his communication skills and his judgment. He still can’t walk to school unsupervised, and it’s only just this year when we finally got him to stop and look both ways before crossing the street. There’s a good chance he will never be mature enough to get a driver’s licence.
  • In a couple of years, he will graduate high school, and he will need a job to keep him busy and make him feel productive. But his autism is severe enough that he won’t likely find a college program that can accommodate him. He’ll likely need to work in a sheltered workshop of sorts all his adult life.

Keeping Watch Over an Autistic Relative

In a short while, my son will be old enough to file for a disability pension. Before that happens, we will have to go through the process of taking control of his finances. He knows what money is and can do simple sums. But he is not ready to make a purchase at the grocery store alone yet, much less pay a rent or budget for monthly expenses.

We will probably always have to watch over him and keep him safe. His repertoire of living skills is growing all the time, but he still needs someone to cook for him. We have to help him bathe and wash his clothes. We have to take him places he likes to go, lest he wanders off or gets excited and walks into oncoming traffic. And although each of these things has the potential to improve, it could be years or even decades before he can do them completely unaided.

Autism will follow him and us for the rest of our lives. And because they have an autistic brother, it will follow my daughters too. Autism will be there when they bring home friends and boyfriends for the first time, and when they get married. It will be there when they get pregnant, and wonder whether any of their children will be born autistic too. Autism will be there when their children become old enough to notice that their uncle is different and start asking awkward questions.

Autism is a lifelong disability for the whole family, and not just for one person.

Autistic teens face all the physical changes of adolescence but may lack the intellectual ability to understand them | #parenting #autism

Autistic teens face some typical challenges and some that are unique
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  1. Profile photo of Dawn Rae
    Dawn Rae

    What a thoughtful article. I just said today that I really feel for a family whose son will need their care and guidance for the rest of his life. I enjoy this young man very much… but he’s not so easy to interact with. And many adults do not try to adjust how they interact… which causes him distress. It is not an easy situation – for the young man or his family. Thank you for writing such a thoughtful article.

    1. Profile photo of Kyla Matton Osborne
      Kyla Matton Osborne Post author

      We’ve been fortunate that our son is quite well known wherever he goes, and very well loved too. But autism is a huge barrier to communication. It can be really tough for strangers to understand our son, and I can imagine what it’s like for the family you mentioned. I wish them all the best!

  2. Profile photo of Pat Z Anthony
    Pat Z Anthony

    Being familiar with this, it seems everyone (outside the family especially) needs to realize that some humans communicate in a different manner. Some will never be ‘adults’ no matter how old they are. It is sad that the world still does not have a grip on this and the issues facing other children/adults who are differently abled.

  3. Profile photo of Andria Perry
    Andria Perry

    I grew up with an autistic neighbor, from birth till they moved and he was around 20 then. This young man often walked around in his underwear outside, he would try to drive their car and it had more than once rammed my dads fence. I often heard him screaming at his father and mother.

    But I never thought nothing about it, nor did the neighbors, that was just everyday life in our neighborhood.

    1. Profile photo of Kyla Matton Osborne
      Kyla Matton Osborne Post author

      It sounds like that family could have used some additional support! Walking around in underwear (or wearing long pants and heavy sweaters in the heat of summer) is common among autistic people. It’s often a sign that they need OT treatment for sensory integration. My son had close to a decade of help before his sensory issues were under control.

      As for driving the car, it can be hard to “autism-proof” a house against a clever child, youth or adult! They know where things like car keys are kept, and they can figure out how to do things like start the car. It’s really tough to protect them sometimes unless the family can afford expensive security measures. This is when it’s most frustrating. We know there are things that would help, but can’t access them!

  4. Profile photo of Suny

    I am expecting a new member in my family. This article will help me keep a close eye on newborn in case any sign of autism is there. I know the sign of autism are visible from the very beginning.

    1. Profile photo of Kyla Matton Osborne
      Kyla Matton Osborne Post author

      I’m not sure how an article about an autistic teen will help you see the symptoms in a newborn, but I’m glad you’ll be watching! Most of the symptoms won’t show up until around 15-18 months. At this time, your child’s doctor should complete a simple screening test called the CHAT: “Checklist for Autism in Toddlers.” If the doctor doesn’t do this, please request it.

  5. Profile photo of Dawnwriter

    I salute the courage and strength of every parent who has a special needs child. This is a very brave article and will surely help a lot of people who have an autistic child. You and your son are in my thoughts and my prayers.

    1. Profile photo of Kyla Matton Osborne
      Kyla Matton Osborne Post author

      It was a difficult article to write, my dear friend. And a much more personal one than I’d normally post on a writing site. But I felt a need to talk about what it’s like to parent an autistic teen who is nearing adulthood. It’s a topic that few articles seem to cover.

    1. Profile photo of Kyla Matton Osborne
      Kyla Matton Osborne Post author

      You know, I can’t imagine my son without his autism. And I honestly don’t know if I would want to try a “cure” if one were available. He would be a whole different person without his autism. It’s a very integral part of him.

  6. Profile photo of Barbara Radisavljevic
    Barbara Radisavljevic

    I did not realize how very disabling autism is. I know people who are autistic who are able to live on their own. They just have trouble communicating with others. I suppose the degree to which autism is disabling varies from person to person.

    1. Profile photo of Kyla Matton Osborne
      Kyla Matton Osborne Post author

      Exactly, Barb! So far as we can tell from the research, there are several genes involved in autism and no single gene is responsible for the condition. So, it’s a bit of a smorgasbord! There are several different ways that autism can manifest, with differing severities. And even two autistic people whose severity is roughly the same can have different symptoms.

      Some autistic people will never speak at all. Others, like my son, are just learning what a 2- or 4-year-old might say in their teens. It’s sort of like an adult trying to learn a foreign language without a teacher.

  7. Profile photo of

    I have a cousin who has autism. He is almost teenage, and his parents often tell me how difficult is it to raise thei oy.

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