As with anyone who has a disability, the temptation to protect an autistic from any and all harm can override good sense. Now, don’t get mad at me. I know you love your kids and want to keep them safe. I think it’s great that you care so much about your children, whether they really are kids or if they’re adults now.
But here’s the thing. Even the most disabled people need as much freedom as they can handle. Protecting an autistic from every little hurt in life can actually do more harm than good in the long run. Within certain bounds, it’s important to let your autistic child make mistakes so she can learn from them. What are those bounds? Like everything else with autism, that depends on the needs of the individual. You know your child better than anyone, so you know when it’s safe to loosen the reins a little. Maybe it’s letting her choose what to have for a meal. Perhaps letting her go by herself into the corner drugstore for a pack of gum. Just something to give a sense of freedom so she knows you want her to be independent.
I’m high-functioning, so my parents were able to let me do basically anything they let my neurotypical older brother do. Sometimes I needed more support from a youth leader or an adult volunteer, but I participated in my church’s youth group, went on retreats (without my parents as chaperones), participated in 4-H, and had free run of the small town I grew up in. Honestly, most of the time I was as safe as anyone else my age.
As a teenager, although my mother wasn’t thrilled (my father didn’t know), I picked my own friends from the teens in town and fell in with a bad group. I was offered everything from drugs and alcohol to cigarettes and sex, but my parents had given me a strong foundation in right and wrong. There were times I walked away from the group and went home because they decided to engage in some illegal or immoral activity. I also left if they started pushing me too hard to do something I didn’t want to do.
Admittedly, at that point my parents didn’t know for sure I was on the autism spectrum, but doctors had talked all the way around a diagnosis and my parents knew something wasn’t normal. And I’m sure many people will think they made a terrible choice in allowing me so much freedom. But if they had protected me from making stupid choices (i.e. choosing the friends I did), I wouldn’t have learned the dangers of drugs, alcohol, and teen sex as well as I did. I may not have participated in any of those activities, but I saw the results of all of them. Some may think it strange, but hanging out with those unchurched teens actually strengthened my faith and my resolve to avoid the illegal and immoral acts that were such a part of their lives.
There are a lot of autistics who wouldn’t be able to walk away from that kind of stuff or endure the teasing I put up with because I was “uptight”. This is where knowing your child’s limits comes in. If you know deep down they can handle more freedom, let them have it. If they can only handle freedom in a safe environment, like a support group meeting or a family gathering, let them have it there.
The important thing is to encourage your autistic child to live up to his potential, just as you would a non-autistic child. Don’t hold him back because of a stereotype or preconceived notion of what he can and can’t do. Allow him to grow, and I’m sure you’ll both be happier for it.