Adulthood with Asperger’s – An Insider’s View
Being an adult is challenging under most circumstances. Once you reach that magical age of 18, you are suddenly expected to be responsible for yourself. You are told that you need to think about employment, independent living, and higher education, and you somehow need to be able to handle these tasks on your own. This realization is overwhelming for any young adult, but for people with Asperger’s Syndrome, it can be devastating. We often struggle with the social interactions and organizational skills that are required for success, and we sometimes don’t know if we will ever learn the skills that are necessary to keep jobs and receive high grades. However, with the right supports, people with Asperger’s can be very successful and can even be an asset to those around them. I would like to share some of my own experiences in this area so that people can learn how to help the autistic community be the best that it can be.
When I turned 18, the first decision that I made was to enter college. As I registered for enrollment at a state college that was 100 miles away from home, I wanted to be treated like any other student. I wanted to live in the dorms with a group of roommates and attend my classes while receiving no supports whatsoever. I hated the stigma of being autistic and I wanted no one to know about it. My mother, on the other hand, knew that I would be unsuccessful if this was the path that I chose. During an appointment with my psychiatrist, she asked him to write a doctor’s note to the residence department in order to secure a single room for me. I loudly complained as the doctor typed the note on his computer, as I was afraid that people would think less of me if I had a “single”. However, it ended up not being so bad. I had a safe place where I could relax when I was feeling overwhelmed by my classes. I was also able to focus on my studies and receive “A” grades for most of my work, as I was not distracted by the antics of roommates. Lastly, I was able to practice study and time management skills in a quiet environment, which would prove to be helpful when I transferred to a college that did not offer single rooms in its dormitories. I would recommend single housing to any student with Asperger’s who has that option available to them, as it can help with relaxation after a challenging day of social interactions and academic demands, allowing students to be able to focus on any homework that needs to be completed.
I also learned over time that I needed to advocate for my needs as a young adult with autism. During my first semester of college, I took five introductory courses. I did not think that I needed accommodations, and so I did not ask for them. Although I struggled somewhat with finishing exams within the allotted amount of time, my grades were quite good. I began to have confidence in my ability to attend classes and complete assignments in the same manner as my neurotypical peers. However, my second semester of college brought classes that were slightly more challenging. In my history class, the tests involved writing a paragraph about five different historical events and then answering a longer essay question. I was expected to complete these tasks in 50 minutes, and I received grades lower than expected due to my needing more time to process the questions. As I thought about how my grades could improve, I thought about the anxiety that I experienced as I rushed through my exams. I realized that I should take advantage of the services that the disability department offered me at the beginning of the school year. The next day, I grabbed several request forms for extra time on exams and used them whenever I knew there was a test coming up in one of my classes. I also made sure to tell my professors about my Asperger’s if they asked me about my challenges, as this would help them understand why I needed supports. This practice would continue for the remainder of my college career, and I credit it for my continued academic success as I moved towards my degree.
After I graduated from college, I decided to move on to graduate school in order to prepare for my chosen career of being a special education teacher. It was around this time that I began to seriously look for full-time employment, as my graduate classes were during the night. I thought that, since I was planning on being teacher, I could apply to paraprofessional positions so that I could gain the appropriate prerequisite experience. I received about 10 job interviews for various positions at local schools. I felt that I did an adequate job with telling the administrators about my skillset and how I would be an asset to the schools’ special education departments, but none of my interviews resulted in an offer. To make matters worse, my dreams of helping students like myself were falling apart at the seams. During my fieldwork at a local middle school, my anxiety was palpable to both the teachers and the students. I often stammered through lessons and had a difficult time with forming relationships with the class. My final performance review ended with the question, “Nathan, are you sure this is what you want to do?” It only took me about 5 minutes to come up with a definitive answer.
I received my Master’s Degree shortly after this experience. It was fantastic that I had accomplished such a huge goal, but I couldn’t use my degree to find a meaningful job because I didn’t have a teaching license. As I thought about what to do next, I asked myself about what I liked most about going to graduate school. I quickly realized that I did not like the fieldwork and teaching components of the program as much as I liked reading the textbooks, writing essays and researching topics in class. After discussing this with my family and hearing their thoughts, I decided to focus my career on special education and disability research. I told my former professors about my plans, and one of them even allowed me to intern as her research assistant so that I could gain experience in the field. Since then, I have completed another internship at a local research facility that focuses on Autism Spectrum Disorder, and am currently looking for full-time work in a similar field. My job opportunities opened up after I began to focus on what interested me rather than what my family and what my college professors expected of me, and I recommend that all people with Asperger’s base their career paths on what makes them happy (i.e. their “special interests”) rather than what others expect of them, as their strengths will dominate over any social challenges that they may experience in the workplace.
If you have Asperger’s and are struggling to find meaningful and gainful employment, please know that things will improve for you. At first, I did not think that this was true, but I was proven wrong when the people who I cared about supported my needs and helped me reach my goals. I am much happier than I was when I stepped into my first college class, preparing for a career that was not right for me at all. I wish you nothing but the best, and I hope that you find happiness and success as you journey through adulthood.