For a few years, way before this COVID pandemic struck, my husband and I were empty nesters. Both children had moved out of the house, and for the first time in 30 years, it was ours and ours alone. As much as I missed my daughters’ company, there was a comfort in finally having a fairly clean kitchen and bathroom, knowing how much and what type of food was in the refrigerator, and having a washer and dryer which was available whenever needed. And while this wasn’t part of our experience, many parents who go through this change also feel a sense of relief that chores like cleaning, taking out the trash, and mowing the lawn are no longer embroiled in nagging and aggravation. And life away from parents is healthy for adult children as well. They learn to take responsibility for their lives and households and live in a manner comfortable for them.
But in my story, one of our adult daughters returned home for an extended period of time. The transition was a bit of a shock and required change and flexibility from all concerned and some family adjustment. Of course, like everything, there were positive aspects as well as challenges from the new situation.
I am reflecting on this experience because I know the COVID pandemic has brought many chicks back to the nest. Colleges offering remote learning, the need for childcare, safety & loneliness issues, and job termination have all caused many adult children to return home–sometimes alone and sometimes with a friend, partner, and even children. And although this is not solely a matter for the autism community, the issues for those on the spectrum and their families surrounding the return home may need slightly more careful navigation and adjustment. Of course the degree of the challenge can be affected by the age of the child returning, available space for privacy, parent & child expectations, personalities, willingness to help with chores, and financial stability. But if you are an adult on the spectrum returning home after years of independence or you are a family once again (or for the first time) sharing space with an adult with autism, here is some advice for all of you to consider.
- Remember Needs, but Recognize Change. No matter how long it has been since you last lived together, it is important to remember the different sensory and space needs an individual on the spectrum may find necessary. However, it is also important to understand how things may have changed for all of you since you were last under the same roof. Has eating schedules shifted? Are their new interests that require a different environment? Discuss these things together so that nothing comes as a surprise or turns into an unmet need.
- Be Flexible and Willing to Compromise. Understand that life is different now, and not everything is going to be the way you want it. There may be a mismatch in standards of cleanliness, food preferences, or daily activities. Parents may need to learn to parent less and respect their adult child’s needs, independence, and decisions about life, and find a way to be available to support them, but not control them. Adults on the spectrum who have grown used to doing things exactly the way they want may have to adjust as well. Don’t criticize or blame and try not to get annoyed or furious. Discover what you can tolerate, advocate for what you need, and work together to find a middle ground.
- Communicate Clearly and Adopt an Attitude of Problem Solving. It’s inevitable that differences in what and how things should be done will surface and conflicts will arise. Identifying the issue early on and talking about it will keep an attitude of cooperation and prevent tensions from building. As with almost every situation, being able to communicate thoughts and feelings is paramount. Be honest about expectations on both sides and include everyone living in the home, including any siblings.
- Create a Restorative Space. Of course this could look very different depending on how much room your dwelling has, but remember that creating private space can be more about the sensory input than the physical area. Sitting in a soft, comfortable chair with headphones and facing a window may be enough to provide the calm, restorative environment needed. Be creative and find something that works for everyone.
- Move from Challenge to Opportunity. This really can be a time to forge a new, mature parent/adult relationship that may not have existed before. You now have a chance to engage in activities together more as peers. You might be surprised to discover the things you have in common. You might walk, cook together, watch videos, and play games. And there may be many new things you can learn from each other.
No one could have predicted the extent to which this pandemic would change our lives. Much of the change has been difficult, but over and over we see the resilience of our community. Whatever your personal situation may be, I hope you are giving the care you can and receiving the care you need.