By Dr Michelle Garnett and Prof Tony Attwood
Whilst finding our place in the world has its own set of challenges, being autistic brings unique challenges. Becoming independent requires certain skills, for example knowing who you are, what environment or job will suit you, what you can cope with and what you can’t cope with, problem-solving skills, adaptive life skills like budgeting and knowing how to care for one’s body, being able to read people and situations to be alert to human predators. We also need peer support because family cannot always be there, and there is danger to being completely alone in the world.
There is no easy way to finding one’s own place in the world but here are some tips based on our own clinical experience to date about what works for autistic teens.
- “Follow your passion.” This superb advice is at the heart of the success of most, if not all, autistic people. New UK research indicates that over 50% of autistic people ehave a passion within the creative arts, more than those who had a passion for information technology. Whatever your passion, let that lead you. Use your creativity and intellect to discover ways around the obstacles, even when you doubt yourself. Do what inspires you even if you cannot see how it can become your career. It may very well be the reason you get up in the morning, even if you must have a ‘day job’ to pay the bills.
- Find your tribe. For many autistic individuals, finding like-minded people doesn’t happen at school or within the workplace, it happens when they are following their passion or their interests. Not everyone will get who you are, but find the people who do. Whilst we all need our solitude at times, we do not thrive in solitude. Our own clinical experience strongly indicates that one of the key factors for success for autistic individuals is that they had support from other people.
- Avoid black-and-white thinking about people. Not everyone will be on your side, but not everyone is against you either. There are people out there who will enjoy you for who you are, and you may be able to enjoy some of what a person offers, even if you can’t enjoy all of it.
- Look out for your safety. You will need to build in safeguards for staying safe from physically, emotionally, financially or sexually abusive predators. The basics include asking friends and family to check out whomever you may choose for a friend or partner, don’t drink in bars alone, o take alcohol or other drugs in groups of mainly men, unless there is someone there who can stay sober and look out for you. Learn how to take protective action should you find yourself in an unsafe situation, for example by attending a martial arts class or a specific Stay Safe course.
- Learn how to budget. It is never too late. If you’re young, start now. Use an online budgeting tool.
- Understand the sensory environment that suits you. Design your living environment around your own needs, also considering the geographical location, for example, central CBD, near a park or in the country.
- If you are house sharing, ask to negotiate the rules upfront for purchase and sharing of food, sharing of expenses, sharing of household chores including cleaning, expectations about noise levels and times of the day, as well as expectations of visitors and how long they stay. Make the guidelines clear and upfront. Whilst people will generally break the guidelines from time to time, less problems and less hurt are the result of upfront discussions and clear guidelines. Keep a copy of the guidelines to refer to as needed during the time you are staying in the house.
- Alcohol and other drugs are commonly used by people to overcome overwhelming social anxiety. Effectively many of these drugs block the frontal lobes, which is the part of the brain that allows for good planning, interpersonal functioning, and sound judgement. Whilst we may feel that we are better socially when we drink alcohol, in reality the reverse is true. Safe, enjoyable and fulfilling social time is compromised when we take excessive alcohol or illicit drugs. Make a rule for yourself not to cross this boundary, and to find other ways to manage fierce anxiety and combat self-consciousness.
- Recognise problems when they come up and don’t personalise them. When there is a problem it doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with you, it just means that there is a problem. Learn how to problem solve:
- define the problem
- brainstorm all possible solutions, including seemingly ridiculous or impossible ones
- make a list of the pros and cons for each solution
- choose a solution based on your analysis
- do it.
Be prepared to try and fail, try again and fail, all the time learning more about who you are, what you need and what you want. Be kind to yourself when you fall.