When time is a protective factor 

My friend and fellow Autism self-advocate Penny Robinson often mentions a quote from UK author and academic Rita Jordan that ‘The biggest gift you can give to people with autism is time’. This has certainly been the case in my experience. I think the audience who will respond best to this post is parents of older or adult  children – not just parents of Autistic children, but parents who worry about their child’s choices and the path they are taking through life regardless of their neurology. I hope this post gives hope.

I was going through photos of me at various ages and came across the one pictured here. This image was taken with my dad in Melbourne, where I lived at the time. It would have been either 1997 or 1998. I was 23 or 24 years old, and it was probably  the worst time of my life (despite me having a sparkly hat!). At the time the photo was taken I had just moved into a two bedroom house run by a charity. The house was for young women who identified as lesbian and who had just been released from prison – I fitted those categories quite neatly at the time. The house was perfect – I had the place to myself and I adopted the most cuddly cat you could imagine, who was the original Hieronymus Bosch Kitty Purkis – or Mr Kitty. I had a new pair of new Converse runners and all was apparently good with the world. My perfect world lasted all of a week before  I became  frightened and overwhelmed in the ‘free’ world as an institutionalised recidivist and did the thing I was best at then – committing random crimes to get arrested and go to prison. My house was lost as was my beautiful cat – he got cat flu despite me having had him vaccinated, and my support worker – one of those ‘mercy of strangers’  people who help but have no personal stake in where their client’s (or their cats’)  lives end up. She decided not to pay for vet treatment for my furry fella and he died.

That’s a rather sad story isn’t it? But it improved and one of the key factors for improvement was time. Criminal me was known for being completely without insight or self awareness. She was self-destructive, self-defeating, impulsive, violent, addicted and incredibly negatively focussed. Imagine the parents of  that young woman – my parents. They were anxious at the best of times and I am horrified to have been the person who unintentionally put them through the hell they undoubtedly encountered. Imagine that young woman’s mental health workers? Imagine the lovely clinical psychologist who diagnosed that apparently lost person with Asperger’s and then watched her miss appointments and refuse to accept the diagnosis and the assistance it could have meant for her, preferring the world of crime and drugs to the world of accepting herself as an Autistic woman.

Time alone did not address the issues I faced of course. People helped and supported me to get to a point where I could make positive, sensible choices.  I often give this example of people having a  major issue with their behaviour, such as a drug addiction. The person with the addiction issue is the only person who can change  their own behaviour. No one person telling them will be able to make them change. This might sound  a little hopeless, for if nobody can make them change and they don’t want to, what hope is there? In fact telling somebody going through addiction issues how much you love them and want them to stop using whatever substance or maladaptive behaviour, by offering genuine advice and support, you are putting in that person’s mind an alternative route so to speak. So they need to make the decision and make the change themselves but you can help them along their path. You might tell them 1000 times that they can change and they have fought and been angry and dismissed what you say every time but when the time comes that they are ready to make a decision to change, those 1000 statements from someone who loves them and cares for them are incredibly important.

I think maturity is about learning from your own mistakes and from others’ experience and stories. For those who care for someone having issues with managing life in whatever way, there are some points to consider.

  • Never give up on  a person. I went from being a homeless, violent criminal to being a many times published author and ACT Volunteer of the Year (among other things). If my parents ever gave up on me they never let me know it and were always beautifully supportive. I imagine it cost them a huge amount to do this but, in our case at least, it paid off.
  • Time itself is actually a protective factor. People’s brains do not tend to fully mature until around age 25. For Autistic people that maturing can happen later at around 30 or sometimes later. Much and all as I hate telling parents ‘wait until they are 30’ for their child to move beyond poor choices, in many instances that is in fact what happens.
  • Things like mental illness can temporarily impact on somebody’s thinking and attitude. This can be frightening for parents and people that love them, but illness is often fleeting or episodic. Even if it is concerning, somebody needing to access clinical support for their mental illness can in fact be a step on the road to self awareness and understanding and the underlying issues being addressed.
  • I have met parents who despair over their young adult daughter not finishing a course or getting a job. Much and all as I hate telling people to put things into perspective, as two different people’s pain or worry is not comparable, I think it is important to b aware of the continuum of challenging  choices and behaviour.
  • So I suppose managing a life of difficult or counterproductive choices – of yourself or someone who you love – factoring in the time and experience element can give some hope and perspective. I feel for parents whose child is wandering on a dark path and I feel for the child too having been in dark places myself. The beauty of being me is that I try to model hope for those in dark places.

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