Rejecting the Diagnosis

Dania Jekel, Executive Director
Blog Post

Over the years, I have received many calls from parents with a common concern. Somewhere in the mid-teen to young adulthood years, children often reject their diagnosis. They want nothing to do with the autism or Asperger’s identity and nothing to do with any social skills groups, therapists, or other interventions. If they have anxiety or depression, they may be unwilling to take their medication. They often want nothing to do with other people who might also have the diagnosis. They may even be upset if their parents are a part of the Asperger/autism community or try to facilitate help or support in any way. It’s a total rejection.

To be clear, I am not referring to people who embrace the identity but choose not to disclose to the world. People should absolutely have the option to share as much or as little of their diagnosis as they choose.

This rejection may happen even when parents have presented the diagnosis in a positive light or the child previously accepted and even embraced the identity in younger years. We see this frequently when the young adult goes to college and tries to make a “new start” as a neurotypical person.

It is true this time of life is difficult for most young people, but I believe this is made harder for individuals on the spectrum as they may begin to realize how different they are from their peers and how much they struggle to fit in. They may think their peers are effortlessly dating and finding friends, and finding employment commensurate with their education, while they seem to be stuck. Many young adults on the spectrum feel angry and think that separation from their Asperger/autism profile will enable them to fit in and do what their peers are doing. Sometimes we have seen people move away from their diagnosis and take off, and that’s great. But unfortunately for many, this road can lead to failure and sometimes these failures have a huge emotional cost.

If you are a parent seeing this happening to your child, here are some things to know that might be helpful:

  • You are not alone. This is something that happens fairly frequently and other parents have been where you are.
  • There is a positive side. Your child is trying to find his/her own identity and move towards independence, which is appropriate for this age.
  • Your child will probably not listen to you. Your role as a parent is shifting, and trying to force your child to do things will cause greater resistance. A better approach is to:
    1. Step back and give your child space.
    2. Let your child make mistakes. You may not be able to protect your child, but you can make sure he or she knows you will be there both to celebrate successes and help in the wake of set-backs.
    3. Handle your own anxiety. Parental anxiety is normal, but try not to show it to your child as they may internalize it.

There are a few ways you can be helpful:

  • If your child does not engage in life–becomes isolated, spends all day playing computer games, or refuses to engage in activities that were previously enjoyed–seek some assistance on how to handle this. If you see signs of depression or high anxiety, consult with a therapist. Intervention may not be accepted until the person is ready, but provide the opportunity and encouragement.
  • If you think your child would be open to adult input but doesn’t want it from you, see if there is anyone who can offer support and special friendship to the student, such as a teacher in an area of interest perhaps art, music, robotics, or history. Try to find someone outside of the “special needs” intervention team or field. The goal is to find a place where the child will feel good, find community, success, and help build self-esteem.

Remember like most young adults of this age, your child is trying to find his or her own identity and a level of independence, which may happen later than their peers. It can be a difficult process, and it may take a direction that goes against what you would wish. But giving teens and young adults the space to discover their own path and identity will hopefully lead them, in time, to a place of self-understanding.