I’m late to the game, but I’ve been seeing articles posted by my friends and fellow bloggers which have trumpeted a story of adult autistics “outgrowing” their autism. I don’t have the patience or the spoons to look up the articles which claim this, but they all follow a similar narrative- allegedly, when autistic children grow up to become autistic adults, they “lose” a lot of their most pronounced autistic traits. Scientists, psychologists, parents, talking heads, and others are eager to point this out as a sign of progress, as proof that autism isn’t a “lifelong” condition, and that there must be something out there which can cause autism to vanish from one’s life.
I’m pretty familiar with the narrative of “vanishing”, whether it’s related to my autism “vanishing”, belonging to a “vanishing” people (Jews and Natives, respectively) and other such talk which places facts of my life in a stiff and static past where I have no room to speak my own mind or express my thoughts. Let me tell you tonight that what others see as “vanishing” or “outgrowing”, I see as adapting, strengthening, and reinventing for survival.
I didn’t “outgrow” my autism. I still have it as an adult.
However, my mother, former teachers, and other people who knew me from when I was very small always remark on the “progress” I’ve made since I was a young girl. I don’t stim in public anymore, I don’t talk out of turn any longer, I stay on-topic when conversing with others, and I stick to subjects deemed “appropriate”. I have a rich, complex, and satisfying social life now, with a great variety of friends whom I love, respect, and cherish. I can form romantic relationships with others, and I have a good (some might even say enviable!) grasp on sex, sexuality, and sexual expression. I am a straight-A student who is active in my campus community and in my larger community. I can, in essence, tick a variety of boxes that are deemed to be signs of being successful and well-adjusted for somebody in my age group. People see that, and their immediate assumption is that I must have outgrown my autism, because there’s no way I could have gone from being a socially isolated, maladjusted, tantrum-and-meltdown having kid to this without getting rid of the autism, right?
Wrong. But I will tell you what the key ingredients are in ensuring this transformation from being an unhappy and pained autistic kid to a well-adjusted autistic adult. Notice that none of it involves shedding my autism, I keep the qualifier of being autistic.
Without getting rid of my autism, outgrowing it, or “recovering” from it, I changed because:
1.) I gained independence.
Getting out of my hometown, going to university, and living on my own made all of the difference. It didn’t happen overnight of course. I had a great deal of help along the way, I had people teach me how to do basic things like cook my food, get to the store for food without a car (I can’t/don’t drive) take care of my own home, pay my bills and taxes on time and correctly, and work while going to school. But it made all of the difference once I learned how to do this on my own and could practice it without judgement and scrutiny. I have my own organization system, my own way of doing things, and my own approach to how I live my life. Without somebody scrutinizing me, I was able to live on my own terms. That made the biggest difference in how I behaved.
2.) I got to have playtime, self-care time, stimming time, and “me” time on my own
When you’re a kid, especially a kid with a disability, parents, teachers, and other adults have this dreadful habit of trying to quantify and micromanage every action you perform in order to find some rationalized “benefit” to it. Oh, Leah’s molding with sculpting clay? That will be good for her fine motor skills! Leah is walking every day with her iPod? That will help her lose weight! Leah is getting into music! She’ll have an age-appropriate topic she can discuss with her peers! Leah’s stimming, that’s bad, she’ll distract people. Leah’s reading again, that’s not a very social activity. Leah’s spending too much time on the computer, she should be talking to real people.
I got away from all of that as an adult living on my own. When I do any activity now, I do not face that level of scrutiny, and I don’t have to worry about my hobbies or actions being deemed worthy or not worthy of some arbitrary scale which measures my progress (Progress towards what? Mimicking non-autistic people?) I am blessed by having a caring and accommodating workplace which allows me to take time if I need to in order to take care of my needs, so if I need to stop working because I need to stim, or draw, or work off excess energy by going for a brisk walk, I can do that. I am allowed to doodle in my class notes without being scolded for being a poor note-taker, and therefore can absorb a lecture in my own way and not concentrate just on making “good” notes that I would never use anyways. This is freedom.
3.) I stopped being so stressed out about methods of de-stressing
I still have stress in my life of course. I just went through a very stressful period of my life which nearly wrecked my mental and physical health (More on that later!) But the stresses of adulthood and independence are ones that I can handle now, because I can de-stress by stimming, clicking together my fingers, or other rapid-fire movements which help re-set my mind from anxiety mode to calm mode, and I don’t have to fear being told that these methods are wrong or that I am being naughty or embarrassing. Ninety percent of the “really bad” autistic moments in my life were triggered by adults taking away my ability to self-regulate my emotions and reactions through stimming or other “bad” autistic behaviours. Now that I do not have to fear being punished for acting autistic, I have little methods of coping with stress which I can use to keep the meltdowns at bay for the most part.
4.) I got through puberty.
I have a theory as to why autistic adults are seen as much “milder” or “less” autistic, one of the reasons, anyways. Because those autistic adults often just got over being autistic teenagers. Going through puberty is stressful and painful enough for a neurotypical teen, for autistic me, it was a nightmare. People are often very clandestine on the nature of puberty and sexuality around disabled children and teenagers, either out of discomfort of the idea of us being sexual beings, some harebrained notion of “protecting” us, or out of cruel malice on the part of parents, caretakers, or other adults. I was told very little about puberty, apart from what I got from books at the library and my high school sex education classes, and there were virtually no books written for autistic cisgendered girls on how to deal with puberty. So that time in my life was very difficult for me, physically and emotionally, and yes, I often took that out in the form of aggression and rebellion towards my parents and other adults, what teenager doesn’t? But what was seen as “normal” teen behaviour for a neurotypical teen was pathologized for me, seen as a byproduct of my disabilities, rather than a fact of my existence. When I calmed down, became an adult, and got more self-aware, I must have seemed like an angel in comparison.
As you can see, I never left my autism behind. Instead, I ended up leaving behind a lot of people and forces which tried to regulate, pigeonhole, and control me and my autism. With that out of my life, I became a happy, well-adjusted adult. The problem here isn’t me losing my autism, it’s those who think that “happy and well adjusted adult” and “autism” are always mutually exclusive categories.
Everybody’s story is different of course, and I welcome other autistic adults who share their stories about living as adults with autism, and whether they feel like they are labelled “more” or “less” autistic than they were in their youth. But that is my story, and I hope it sheds some light on the myths around outgrowing autism like last-summer’s bathing suit or an old coat.