When I say “ageism,” what do you think of?
You might think of a middle-aged or older person being excluded in the workplace because they’re too close to retirement age.
Or you might think of a younger adult being excluded from adult things by people who feel teenagers, even those who are 18 or 19, are too young to be considered grown-ups.
Or you might even think about children and the disrespectful, even abusive, things many adults do to them as a matter of routine because children in many societies are perceived as deserving fewer human rights than adults.
All of these are examples of ageism, but today I want to talk about a particular sort of ageism that Autistic adults and older teens experience at the hands of people who are wonderful (or at least good) with Autists who are smaller children.
I’ve experienced and observed this trend long enough to recognize a clear pattern here. I’m going to say it again: There are a lot of people out there who are great, good, or even just good enough with Autistic people who are toddlers or grade school age or tweens to early teens, but treat older Autists badly or horribly, in ways that are excluding, judging, harmful, or abusive.
What does this ageism look like? Here are a few examples:
Sometimes I do a presentation about autism to a group of mostly parents. They have autistic kids at home and know not to physically crowd in on their children, not to overstimulate them, not to load their children down with too many demands at once.
So what do they do the first time they get a chance to learn from an autistic adult? They crowd in on me, competing with one another to ask question after question. I’ve learned to request a “handler” when I speak to parent groups.
I am happy to answer questions (I often intentionally structure my presentations with lots of open question time, figuring if one person asks something, at least eight other people need the answer, too) even after I’ve left the podium. But without someone there to put a stop to the press, these parents would keep asking questions all night. It’s so hard to pull myself out of that situation, but they will reluctantly listen to someone else coming to my rescue.
These parents are good people who want to help their children. They know their children would feel assailed by that kind of situation, they know I’m autistic, yet they subject me to the sensory overload they create, seemingly without a single thought about it.
Another example of something I’ve noticed too many times to count happens between spouses of mixed neurotype. The allistic (not-autistic) parent is terrific with the kids: gentle, attentive, understanding. But when their autistic spouse exhibits exactly the same behavior, the allistic partner is confused, sometimes angry, sometimes contemptuous.
“Why are they like that?!” The allistic spouse demands.
“Well, because they’re autistic,” I respond, wondering why I need to explain to someone who so clearly gets it when it comes to their children.
“But I’m not getting my needs met!” they might counter. Or, ”they need to just get over that,” or ”I feel rejected,” or any number of other reactions that show that the allistic parent is unable to generalize what they have learned as a caring parent to what they need to know to be a caring spouse. (And they say it’s just us Autists who can’t generalize information!)
Another scenario I’ve seen happens when those autistic children grow up. I’ve seen lots of parents grow and adjust with their children and be as brilliant parenting autistic teens and later autistic adults as they were at parenting autistic children. I’ve even seen many parents who were at a loss until their child became a teen or an adult and the understanding finally clicked into place and the path between parent and older children became much more smooth.
But I’ve also seen a lot of parents do great when their children are little but lose the plot when those same children grow up. This isn’t limited to allistic parents, either. I’ve seen autistic parents who are wonderful with little ones but impatient and angry when their tinies became teens and adults.
How can people who clearly understand how to be safe and supportive for autistic children fall down so badly when it comes to offering the same for autistic adults? My conclusion: ageist assumptions.
It doesn’t matter that someone knows autism is a lifelong neurological divergence. It doesn’t matter that someone understands that autism includes a developmental trajectory very different from a neurotypical standard. On a gut level, all of that goes out the window when that autistic brain is in a grown up body.
They’re an adult. They should know better. They should get over it. They are just trying to be difficult, inconvenient, defiant, unloving, selfish.
I have news for all of y’all. The body may be bigger. The person may be better at some things than they were before: maybe they speak better or more or at all now, maybe they can tie their shoes or get dressed without prompting or assistance, maybe they’ve graduated high school or gotten university degrees. Maybe years of some kind of training has taught them to suppress their needs in order to make those around them more comfortable. Or maybe their growth and development has brought them to some other point I’m not describing, but they’ve grown in body and mind and spirit in some way, because we all do grow and develop as long as we’re alive. Their autistic brain and nervous system is still autistic.
And you can still lay neurotypical demands and expectations on them that they aren’t going to be able to meet. You can still find buttons to push that throw them into a meltdown, even if you have to push those buttons harder or the buttons have shifted location a bit. Except now, because their bodies got bigger, the penalties for those meltdowns are more severe. And shame on you if you know an adult is autistic and you push them into meltdown and then lay blame on them for your ageist actions.
Here’s the bottom line: you can be gentle and understanding and adaptive with autistic adults without being infantalizing. You can listen and understand and believe and respect autistic adults every bit as much as you do those things with autistic children. If you don’t, you’re being ageist. And if you aren’t even doing these things for children, you’re ignorant and you need to up your game.
Autistic people grow up and become autistic adults. Autistic adults deserve understanding, respect, and dignity. Listen and believe autistic adults when they communicate who they are and what they need. Let them set the pace for life and don’t rush them, prod them, or demand they live up to neurotypical standards (so many alleged neurotypicals can’t live up to those standards anyway. Why do you press us to endure them?)
If you think an adult body means an autistic brain has “toughened up” and can take what the world dishes out, you haven’t been listening. You are being ageist. You are frustrated that we don’t “just get over it”? Let’s start with you getting over your ageism. Otherwise you’re urging people toward a level of life burnout from which it takes years to recover.
Hit re-set and try your interactions with autistic adults again, but this time from a place that respects the sensitively tuned nervous system of the autistic body/mind.