I really dislike the concept of a “mental age”. I’ve heard people use the concept of mental age to justify endless oppressive, dangerous actions against disabled people, including but not limited to, surgery without consent, institutionalization, sterilization, and deliberately withholding important medical information from someone. It’s just an all-around bad idea. Today though, I want to talk about the flip-side of the coin: Telling disabled people of any age (but especially older teenagers and adults) that their interests are not “age-appropriate”, and trying to get them to substitute it for something more socially acceptable.
A while ago, I read about an autism-themed forum where one of the speakers encouraged caretakers and parents to, “train the young adult to be more socially appropriate by adapting his leisure activities to his chronological age”. As an example, he said that someone who enjoys listening to Raffi should be encouraged to instead embrace the music of Jack Johnson. “Jack Johnson,” Gerhardt said, “is Raffi for adults.” I cocked an eyebrow at it, and then forgot until I was reminded of it today by someone wondering if their teenager’s interest in TV shows like My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic would make them socially maladjusted and if they should be discouraged from watching it.
There’s a lot of problems with that kind of logic, the most glaringly obvious one being a staple of after-school specials for decades: If you change your interests and personality in order to obtain popularity, you will lose things you love (your true friends, your interests, your personal uniqueness) in exchange for the hollow victories of temporary popularity and false friendship. Does this often-heard message not apply to autistic people, for some reason, or should we treasure being approved by non-disabled people above all else, including our true selves? I think not.
Another problem I have with this kind of advice is that it doesn’t really prepare you for adulthood, not as I experience it, anyhow. I’m sure others will agree with me that, as one gets older, the lines between which interests are considered “age appropriate” or “cool” get extremely blurred. When I was a young teenager, I found myself becoming overly preoccupied with the appearance of maturity, and wouldn’t have been caught dead watching cartoons, wearing “uncool” clothing, or participating in activities which I secretly found fun, but avoided because it would look silly, get me dirty, or some other foolish reason I can hardly recall. Now, as a young adult, I relish childish indulgences (without letting them define my life) like bouncing in a bouncy castle, watching my favourite cartoons, listening to Disney soundtracks, blowing bubbles, and laughing until my eyes water. It’s my life, and I want to spend it doing things that I enjoy without becoming transfixed with the gaze of others upon myself. And there are others out there like me who enjoy it, share my passions, and who don’t once tease me or try to change me by telling me to, I don’t know, enrol in riding lessons instead because that’s more socially acceptable.
Autism has the power to liberate you from a good portion of silly, arbitrary social ideas of normality, and it is not a good idea to enforce them as a means of helping autistic youth integrate with their peers- attitude wise, they’re already lightyears ahead of others when it comes to accepting the message that who you are matters more than how others see you. If you’re an autistic youth or adult with a childish side or an “age inappropriate” interest, embrace it. The world would be dull if we lived in a culture of enforced hegemony of interests based on age, gender, ability, background, or other factors, you’re helping keep things interesting.
As a concluding note: This also applies to those kids on the spectrum who, like me, had the opposite problem of “age appropriate” interests, branded as “precocious” for talking like “little adults”, possessing huge vocabularies, and advanced reading capabilities. Don’t “dumb yourself down” for the sake of popularity either! Popularity is a cheap, quick, and easy high which fades far too soon, but passion and a thirst for knowledge lasts a lifetime. I’ll stop with the encouraging clichés now, I promise.