5 Tips for 'Adulting' With Autism
In December of 2014, almost three years ago I was given a gift, not for Christmas but equally as important to me. I was given the gift of self-awareness. At the end of 2014 I was officially diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (Asperger’s) and for the most part my diagnosis has been a relief and a reward.
Don’t get me wrong, autism can be challenging. Most of my challenges are invisible to the untrained eye. Until I was diagnosed I felt out of touch and out of sync with the world around me. Social communication challenges and sensory processing issues made things pretty difficult for me especially as I entered into adulthood. Simple things like making friends and finding and keeping a job were difficult for me because of the way the world works. Now with three years under my belt and a diagnosis and more determination, I’ve learned as I am nearing 40 how to manage my life in a way that helps highlight my strengths.
Adulting and autism is a grind. If you’re on the spectrum or have a child on the spectrum and are nearing adulthood, here are a few things I’m learning to manage that have helped me become more successful and stable.
1. Manage your time.
When it comes to time, we really don’t manage it because we can’t manipulate it. Time moves on with or without us. Time can be a challenge for me as with many people on the spectrum, because I can become laser focused on finishing a task and get totally lost in it. Although I have an incredible sense of chronological time, my sense of timing can become distorted. I can miss important windows of time which makes it difficult for me to instinctively know when to take a break. Right now I am on sabbatical for this very reason. Because I love what I do, I find it difficult to know when I’ve done too much. My advice is to assign trusted people to point you toward the need for rest. Have them help you create margin. Managing time is about margin. Create space between your load and your limit and have people stand in the gap and warn you when you’re in danger of crossing the line.
2. Manage your energy.
Energy management is essential. Honestly, I am still very much a work in progress when it comes to this critical issue. The spoon theory is a wonderful example of what energy management is all about. Simply put, I’ve had to learn what types of activities require certain types of energy and as a result learn to ration out my energy for tasks that are important for this season and stage in my life and career. Sensory overload has a tremendous impact on how I am learning to ration out my energy to be more effective. I’ll write more about that later, but the fact that I live in a world that my brain isn’t built for requires me to be very frugal with my energy. I turn down good opportunities if they infringe upon my ability to be great at something else.
In the last three years I’ve learned how to manage this through trial and error, journaling, and failing at tasks because I gave my energy away to something less important. Energy management is about learning a pace and rhythm that works best for you in your pursuit of reaching your goals. Give yourself permission to only give yourself away to things that will make a contribution to your journey and support your core convictions.
3. Manage expectations.
Admittedly this one is hard to do. Managing expectations means trying to manage your own expectations as well as the expectations of others. Prior to my diagnosis, I thought I was simply not enough to meet the expectations I placed on myself, and that translated to how I perceived others when thinking of whether or not I was meeting their expectations. Truthfully, most of what I thought people wanted was probably the result of my own insecurities. Then there is also a small percentage of people who simply have unrealistic and unreasonable expectations of others. This is true in both relationships and employment, and it makes it extremely tough to transition into adulthood having trouble with meeting the demands you place on yourself and having demands placed on you.
I have learned that most expectations go unmet simply because they go unexpressed. When it comes to managing expectations, don’t allow anything to remain ambiguous or undefined. Try to understand exactly what is expected from you by others upfront, so you can decide if you feel you are capable of meeting those demands. It also allows the other party to hear if their requests are actually reasonable. Most times people have ideas in their minds about what is feasible, and it’s not until those ideas come out of their heads and onto paper that you can both assess what is realistic. I want to honor my commitments, but honoring requires honesty. I’m learning to be honest with myself and with others about what I can do. You can’t do what you can’t do, and having limits doesn’t make you weak it makes you honest and human.
4. Manage your sensory resources.
In the past I’ve written about the impact my sensory processing has on my energy levels. This has been a learning curve for me. Certain sights, sounds and smells can send my brain into overload. My brain doesn’t always manage the environment very well, and as a result it can become overwhelmed and shut down.
Think of your computer when it has been asked to process too many tasks. When you get what I call the “wheel of death” you know the machine is overwhelmed. In order to help the computer you have to open the task manager by hitting control, alt, delete and shut it down. This is what is known in the autism community as a meltdown or in my case as I have grown older, a shut down. My brain needs a break, so it takes one and in the process it takes me with it.
When I’m scheduled to attend an event or outing, I like to do as much research as possible. I try to find out what the environment might sound like and smell like. How long will I be there? Is there a schedule or program I can view so I can understand what will be taking place? When I arrive I try to sit close to an exit or with easy access to the restroom. I often need to take scheduled breaks so I don’t get overwhelmed, so having access to the door or restroom helps me remove myself for a few minutes. Sitting in the corner of the room often helps “cut off the room” so I can place all of the action in front of my line of sight.
Having chewing gum and/or mints also helps focus my sensory input. I often count in patterns when I chew, or when using mints I try to have something hard and crunchy I can bite into to give me some sensory relief. Ultimately, I can’t change my brain but I can periodically train it to manage certain situations if I am prepared to take on the challenge in advance.
5. Manage your social calendar.
In the past, social anxiety has been a huge hindrance to my professional career. I discovered I needed a wingman. I am not an initiator, so I needed to coordinate with people who can help create a calendar filled with important opportunities to connect with people I may otherwise not have engaged with because of my social anxiety. This has worked well for me. I am able to interact with more regularity and more confidence because I have reduced the pressure of having to be the initiator.
I have recruited trusted people to help get me in the door, to make critical introductions and initiate relationships that may benefit me as well as other parties involved. With each successful relational connection comes more self-awareness, and more importantly more self-confidence. With the help of trusted friends and professional colleagues, I have slowly learned to step out from the shadows and be more confident in connecting with others by learning how to be in the action without feeling the pressure to be the center of attention. I have something to offer the world, and in order to live my best life I have decided I could use a little help connecting with the people who need to know who I am.
In conclusion, I’ve learned a lot about myself, about who I am and what makes me special. With proper planing and adequate support, I find that I continue to get better and more productive at living life well. It is my hope that my journey can inspire and empower autistic teens and young adults entering adulthood and seeking independence, to know and be confident in their ability to make a successful and fulfilling life for themselves.
A version of this post originally appeared on autismpastor.com.
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