Young Adults on the Spectrum and Isolation

Blog Post

First-time callers of all ages most often reach out to us either when they first get a diagnosis or when they are facing a particularly acute issue.

Looking at the numbers (see the pie chart included), 42% of callers are requesting support for young adults, ages 18 – 30. Young adulthood seems to be a particularly difficult time for people living on the spectrum.

Many of these callers are parents who are worried because their young adult child spends most of their time in his or her room, on the computer. Sometimes they are sleeping during the day and awake at night, living life with very little interaction with the non-virtual world. Having no social life, no direction, and no employment (and seemingly no motivation or initiative) is heartbreaking to see as a parent and is equally heartbreaking for the child. The question parents ask us is, “What should I do to help my child re-engage with the real world?” The question young adults ask us is, “How can I feel better?”

If you resonate with this situation, this blog is for you.

First, I want to address why a young person might be sitting in his or her room. Here is what I have heard from the adults I have spoken to:

  • This behavior can come from a place of fear, even though it might look like defiance.
  • At this age, many feel like a failure, dealing with low self-esteem and shame. Their past failures and faux pas haunt them.
  • They feel out of sync with their peers and the world. They see their peers getting jobs and partners, and it looks so easy for them. It seems like others have a road map, which they are missing.
  • They feel younger than their peers–not ready to take on adult life.
  • They identify as socially inept, and it feels safer to keep to themselves.
  • They are frustrated. Sometimes they blame those around them and closest to them for their unhappiness and inability to move on. Some want no relationships with their parents and shut down communication.
  • These feelings lead to tremendous anxiety about “joining” the world, often depression and sometimes anger at who they are and what makes them feel so different from others.

This sounds discouraging, but do not despair. Most adults on the spectrum just take a lot longer to find their place in the world (often at around age 30). They find a way that is not conventional–not a straight path. They may find a less traditional way to live their life.  Parents, you may need to support your child financially and emotionally for longer than expected, and if you can do this, despite what traditional advice you might hear, I recommend you get on board with your child’s timeline. The more you can accept your child’s need for more time, the less shame he or she will feel. And, know that there are concrete strategies to help.  

To prevent the isolation of your child:

If possible, start early helping your child understand and celebrate their way of thinking, their strengths and challenges and what it will mean in terms of their big-picture life. Teach them about neurodiversity. Continue this process as your child grows. This can help prevent many of the challenges related to self-esteem.

Actively work to prevent bullying from peers and adults, as bullying can lead to deep and lasting feelings of shame and low self-esteem.

If possible, try to provide structure in your child’s life during transition times. Start transition planning before school or college lets out. Habits can be hard to break. Once a person is settled into a life outside the world, it’s much harder to start again. On the flip-side, once someone has momentum around activities and jobs, it is easier to keep that going.

Watch closely for depression and paralyzing anxiety, and find professional help if you see this. And despite the work you may have done to prevent your child’s isolation, sometimes it can’t be prevented.

  • Be very patient, try not to be angry or frustrated. Keep thinking this is not intentional behavior.
  • Revise your expectations of parenting (that’s it’s over when your child graduates).
  • Revise your expectations for your child so they are realistic.   
  • If your child won’t talk to you, communicate via texts or email.
  • Try to get a third person like a coach or therapist involved.
  • Look for and celebrate very small, baby-step changes. 
  • Realize that anything new will be difficult.
  • Try to avoid ultimatums; they will not motivate your child.  
  • Keep relationship positive. Try to find things you can do together such as playing a game or watching a movie.
  • Finding ways for your child to have meaningful success. If possible, suggest small things a person might be able to do, such as dog walking or mowing the lawn. The person will feel better contributing, and you will feel better that the person is helping out, even if just a small bit. Present volunteer work as an option.
  • Try to find out exactly what is creating anxiety and creatively solve those problems.
  • Focus on your child’s interests to find friends, jobs, internships, and outside connections.
  • Remember and communicate that it is never too late to cultivate new interests. Some activities cultivated by adults in the AANE community include: learning a new language, joining hiking, cycling, and running clubs, participating in martial arts, enrolling in art classes, and so much more.
  • Use logic. Explain why it’s valuable to make connections and meet others.
  • Encourage your child to take risks.

Please remember AANE’s experienced staff can talk to you, or, for a more individualized, intensive approach, we provide parent coaching and in-person & online support groups.