Autism and hurdles toward independence

Jeff Katz

It took a long time for me to alter my outlook on Nate’s time-frame. Meaning this: perhaps he has no chance of becoming an independent being at 21, like most college graduates do, but maybe at 30 years old. Maybe at 35. Once I stretched out the line, it was easier to grapple with the obstacles in his way.

Nate has his strengths that could allow a separate life. He wakes himself up, showers, gets dressed, often makes his own breakfast and gets his meds. In the course of the day he’s pretty much self-contained, though he does hound us on what we’re going to do to occupy his time. If Nate lived alone, he could busy himself, as long as he had a TV, Internet and an Xbox.

Whether Nate can get a job, that’s still up in the air. As a high school senior he worked a bit at the Bassett Hospital print shop, a job coach by his side. Nate needed instruction on proper office behavior: respect other people’s space, don’t pick your nose and then use the keyboard, that kind of stuff. Something remarkable happened over the weeks: Nate produced excellent work, his distractions never prevented him from getting all his tasks done and done well. He even instructed the full-time employees on how to find shortcuts on the keyboard. By the time he was finished, Nate had received a glowing job recommendation. So there’s hope.

Where Nate falls apart is in his inability to adapt to sudden problems and emergencies. Years back, I was sitting at this computer, talking on the phone, when Robbie walked in.

“Dad, there’s…”

“Rob, I’m on the phone.”


I held up my finger to get Robbie to be quiet, but he thankfully persisted.

“There’s water coming down the chandelier!”

I hung up and rushed to the dining room, where, sure enough, a cascade was streaming down the light fixture. Immediately I realized Nate’s room was directly above. I ran upstairs to find Nate calmly sitting at his desk. The toilet in his bathroom (our house is a former Bed and Breakfast so most bedrooms have their own bathroom), about five feet away from where he sat, was overflowing and the torrent of water was making its way through the floor to the room below.

A pretty comical situation, but it pointed out with marked clarity how weak Nate was in his judgment and ability to even notice a catastrophe. What if it were a fire? Or the power went out? Or any number of situations which Nate would be unequipped to handle. He can’t live alone with such a glaring deficiency.

I hadn’t thought about that moment in a while until right now. Nate likes to empty the water from the cellar humidifier. He’s very sensitive to the indoor weather conditions and he hates when it gets sticky. He heads down periodically to empty the contents into a big blue pail, which he then dumps out in the kitchen sink.

“Dad, the humidifier’s not working!” There’s always a bit of panic in a sentence like that, usually accompanied by the shouting of “FIX IT!!! FIX IT!!!,” yelled in a monotone that hearkens back to young Nate’s language problems. Even he’ll tell you after an outburst like that, “Does that sound like me when I was a four-year old autistic kid?” Yes, it does.

I went down to check out what was wrong. Sometimes a fuse blows; Nate would never grasp how that works. This time, the extension cord was unplugged. A simple mystery solved immediately: follow the power. I was disappointed that Nate couldn’t find that solution himself. We talked about it, and I tried to explain to him basic problem solving.

Does Nate have the skills to analyze a situation and come up with a remedy? I’ve watched him play Super Monkey Ball for hours on end, and this kid can figure things out at a very high level of difficulty. It’s the little things that pass him by.

Courtesy of Mission of Complex

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