Autism and False Prophecies of Doom

A picture of a stimming teenage girl with the words "An autistic person's future is a mystery. Don't believe people who say it'll be awful."

“I’m so sorry. Your child has SEVERE AUTISM. She will never fall in love. She will never drive, hold down a job, or be the daughter you dreamed of.”

How many parents hear those words? How many autistic kids, stimming on the floor, overhear those words?

I know it must be scary for parents to hear those things. I also know that autistic people, having overheard them enough, may start to believe them. So I’d like to take some time to assure all of you that this is utter nonsense.

Yes, it is. Really.

No one knows the future.

Nobody has any idea what an autistic person, especially an autistic child, will be capable of.

For one thing, nobody here is clairvoyant. (…Right?) The future is a total mystery. Maybe an autistic kid will grow up to be a bestselling author whose TED talk has half a million views. Or maybe they’ll be ringing up purchases in a quiet boutique. We have no clue.

For another thing, the record shows that even autistic kids with serious issues and impairments can make leaps and bounds in life.

  • John Elder Robison, now a successful writer, used to head-bang against walls so hard that it left holes.
  • Amy Sequenzia, a writer and autistic advocate, was institutionalized as a child and refused to enter rooms with ceiling fans because she was afraid they would fall.
  • Julia Bascom, executive director of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, had no theory of mind whatsoever until age 13.
  • Emma Zurcher-Long, a teen essayist and co-director of a documentary, used to have all kinds of issues that confounded her mother. Emma’s life has gotten much better since she learned to type.
A girl does a calculus problem
Nonspeaking at 6, math nerd at 16? It’s possible.

Just because someone has a tough childhood doesn’t mean that they’ll never change. They can learn. They can hit their milestones late, and hit them beautifully nonetheless.

If you choose to quit and say an autistic person will be helpless forever, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. But if you’re autistic and you keep trying to learn, or if you’re a parent and you keep encouraging your child to try, you may be pleasantly surprised.

Have an autistic child? Then you should know that YES, there are possibilities. Yes, your child could become a writer. Yes, your child could fall in love. Yes, your child could have a wonderful life.

That life may not be “normal.” But it may be exactly what your child wants.

Autism is not a developmental delay, rather it is a different road entirely.”

Emma Zurcher-Long

And maybe they’ll do things differently. Maybe your nonspeaking son will be nonspeaking forever, but he’ll type the most profound and thoughtful things. Maybe your daughter’s home in adulthood will contain zero kids, zero spouses, three dogs, and one best friend.

You don’t know the future. But you can know that it contains many possibilities, and so many of these possibilities are beautiful.

Don’t worry too much about delays.

Think about it. What did you struggle with when you were in elementary school?

I’m willing to bet that you don’t still have those exact same behaviors.

Autistic Mama, “No One Knows Your Autistic Child’s Future

There’s a huge difference between “it hasn’t happened yet” and “it’ll never happen.”

When I was 9 or 10, I thought that typing would be impossible for me. At age 11, my dad sat me in front of the computer and suggested that I try typing out novels, since writing is a special interest of mine. At age 18, my occupational therapists set a typing speed goal, only to discover that I could type 3 times as fast.

When I was 18, I thought I may never be able to drive. At age 23, I’m able to drive to school, the grocery store, the mall, Target, and my therapist’s office.

Autistic people can be slow learners, especially when it comes to motor skills. But we’re also lifelong learners. Just because it takes later for us to get going doesn’t mean we won’t become good at it later on.

Autistic teens, and caregivers of autistic people, might worry too much about developmental delays. They start envisioning a future of powerlessness and hopelessness, in which milestones are never ever met.

But that’s not realistic. Milestones usually do get met, at their own pace. And even if some people never do develop certain skills, they can find support to live full and happy lives.

So instead of catastrophizing and thinking things like this:

  • “My son has severe autism. He’ll never be independent. He’ll never fall in love or drive a car or hold a job or do anything on his own ever.”
  • “I’m 18 and I still can’t drive. I’m going to have to rely on smelly buses or expensive ride sharing apps forever.”
  • “My baby daughter still won’t look me in the eye. How will she ever make friends at preschool, or school? Does she even know I love her? Is she going to be lonely for the rest of her life?”
  • “I haven’t had friends for 5 years now. What happens when I grow up and move out? Will I come home to an empty apartment every evening? Will I be lonely for the rest of my life? Will I die alone?”

Try reframing doom-and-gloom thoughts to thoughts like this:

  • “My son is meeting milestones more slowly, but that doesn’t mean I need to panic or give up. There’s no way to know what the future holds. His abilities may surprise me. I just need to do my best to help.”
  • “It’s not unusual for an autistic 18-year-old to not be driving yet. Maybe I’ll be ready at age 19, or 21, or 25, or 35. Just because it hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it never will. I can let it go and focus on my schoolwork, because that’s my biggest priority right now.”
  • “I know that eye contact is uncomfortable for many autistics, so I won’t worry about it. She’ll learn to socialize in ways that make her comfortable. I can help by being loving, kind, and patient. Maybe I should go read her favorite book to her again.”
  • “Making friends is tough. Maybe I should focus on building online friendships, since that’s easier for me. I can reach out to my family and tell them how I feel, and ask if they will still visit when I move out. I need to remember that I make people laugh, and my future coworkers could become good friends if I let them in.”

Sometimes we need to slow ourselves down, take some deep breaths, and back up. It’s easy to lose perspective when you’re scared.

It also helps to do something about your fear. Worried about your child’s reading skills? Go read to them about their special interest. Dismayed by your motor skill issues? Try doing yoga or exercises from a therapist. Then tell your worries “See, I did something! Now go away, because you’re not helping!”

And don’t forget to forgive yourself for not being perfect. Life happens. You’re only human.

Final thoughts

It’s important to remember:

  • Something that isn’t possible yet could be possible next year, or in 5 years.
  • Autistic people learn at their own pace.
  • You’re doing your best. That’s all anyone can do.
  • Negative self-talk won’t help anyone. Let go of the guilt and the catastrophic thinking, and instead focus on doing something that will help. (Even if it’s just giving yourself a break.)

These things take time. Don’t let that scare you.

The possibilities are still out there.

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