The New York Times published an article last Sunday called “Adult, Autistic and Ignored” by Eli Gottleib. Dave Nelson, The Community School’s Executive Director, wrote this Letter to the Editor in response. It may not be published by the Times, but we, the editors of the TCS blog, certainly will!
As a parent of a 26 year old autistic man trying to live independently with dignity, I can appreciate Gottleib’s reaction to his brother’s life in Adult, Autistic and Ignored. Even with financial support and helping professionals, my son often struggles to maintain positive, sustaining relationships. He wants the world to be inclusive and understanding without also compelling him to be absorbed into the mainstream. He frets about how challenging life is and that he doesn’t have everything that “others” have. I understand his angst and must also find ways to emotionally distance myself from it. His acute self-awareness, which I believe to be a blessing, is also a burden, as he can see what he doesn’t have and why it’s so hard for him to get it. It can tear at my heart.
I also run a high school and young adult program called The Community School (see the 2008 New York Times Magazine article). There is reason for optimism. As more voices of adult autistics are heard, service providers are shifting gears, providing more comprehensive and relational interventions rather than purely behavioral ones. We use a mental health framework to attune to the goals our clients express. We also help them to know themselves and be durably connected to others. That ability to form relationships is what makes everything else—vocational training, independence skills, and more—useful over the long term.
Self-awareness, though sometimes painful, can reduce anxiety and increase contentment and productivity. We can help many people on the spectrum to be connected to the larger world while also retaining their unique identity.
– Dave Nelson