Supporting Autistic Adults: Challenges, Strengths, and Strategies for Success

Autism is often considered a childhood condition, but the truth is, it’s a lifelong neurological difference that affects people of all ages. As children with autism grow into adulthood, they face unique challenges but also possess special strengths. Supporting autistic adults requires understanding the obstacles they may encounter and the abilities they bring to the table.

Supporting Autistic Adults Challenges, Strengths, and Strategies for Success
Supporting Autistic Adults Challenges, Strengths, and Strategies for Success

The Transition to Adulthood

Most autism resources focus on early intervention for children. But what happens when an autistic child becomes an adult?

Despite the myth that autistic kids can “grow out of” autism, an autism diagnosis typically lasts a lifetime. Autistic children build skills and coping mechanisms to mask symptoms, but the underlying neurological differences remain.

In fact, many adults are now seeking diagnoses due to expanding diagnostic criteria and awareness. Over 5.4 million U.S. adults – more than 2% of the population – are estimated to be on the spectrum.

During an evaluation, a healthcare professional will observe behaviors and interactions to determine if an adult meets the criteria for an autism diagnosis. They may also have the individual complete a questionnaire about their developmental history.

Obstacles Facing Autistic Adults

Why do we know relatively little about autistic adulthood? Some possibilities:

  • Most new autism diagnoses are in children since symptoms emerge early.
  • Parents of newly diagnosed children are the most likely to research autism.
  • By adulthood, parents feel they’ve become the experts on their own child’s needs.
  • Many autistic adults were never diagnosed as children due to past narrow diagnostic criteria.
  • Adults with less support needs may not seek information from non-autistic sources.
  • Some autistic adults have intellectual disabilities that make reading difficult.

Though each autistic adult faces unique challenges, some common obstacles emerge:

Navigating Daily Living

Adulthood comes with expectations of independence – managing a household, finances, social life, and often parenting. For autistic adults, these complex demands of daily living can be overwhelming.

Many autistic people struggle with executive functioning, impacting skills like planning, organization, and time management. Life skills training, like cooking or using a calendar, can build critical real-world competencies.

Of course, daily living looks different for everyone. Some autistic adults are nonverbal or minimally verbal, while those with less support needs can seem highly independent despite internal struggles.

Transportation and Housing

Accessing transportation and housing present additional barriers. Many autistic adults, especially those unable to drive, have limited transportation options. Navigating public transit can be disorienting.

Additionally, funding for supportive housing is scarce. Group homes that do exist are often low-quality. As a result, the majority of autistic adults live with their parents or caregivers. This provides needed support and stability.

Finding and Maintaining Employment

Only 21% of adults with disabilities are employed. But with proper supports, autistic adults can thrive in the workplace.

Many autistic people excel in fields like IT, engineering, mathematics, and clerical work. They tend to be honest, focused, and detail-oriented.

Under the ADA, employers must provide reasonable accommodations like written instructions or noise-canceling headphones. Workplace adjustments allow autistic employees to maximize their talents.

Strengths of Autistic Adults

While significant challenges exist, focusing exclusively on deficits paints an incomplete picture. Autistic adults also possess unique strengths.

Some lead successful independent lives with careers, relationships, and families. They integrate their autism into a thriving self-identity.

Autistic people are often intensely skilled in areas like music, art, writing, computers, math, cataloging, crafting, and graphic design. Their talents diversity workplace skill sets.

Neurodiversity initiatives recognize these aptitudes. Major companies actively recruit and support autistic employees, including Microsoft, SAP, and Walgreens.

Promoting the gifts and contributions of autistic adults combats stigma and creates more inclusive communities.

Supporting Autistic Adults

Since research and resources focus overwhelmingly on autistic children, many parents are unprepared for the transition to adulthood.

At 22, autistic individuals age out of entitlements like special education services under IDEA. State-level vocational rehabilitation programs help provide services and workplace accommodations.

But adult offerings are inconsistent. While states like California and Wisconsin offer generous support, others like West Virginia and Montana provide minimal autism-specific assistance.

Fortunately, some progress is being made. As of 2019, health insurance plans must cover evidence-based autism therapies. Easterseals’ State Autism Profiles detail age-specific resources state-by-state.

Additional support systems include:

  • Autism Research Institute: Information on adult issues like employment and aging.
  • AANE: Resources for independent living, college, and workplace success.
  • Spectrum Works: IT job training and placement for autistic adults.

With proper supports, many autistic individuals thrive in adulthood. But more research and policy changes are still needed to fully include autistic adults in society.

Autistic Voices: Portraits of Success

Some well-known autistic adults openly share their experiences, acting as role models for what’s possible. These voices provide inspiration and guidance for autistic individuals and their families.

Temple Grandin

  • Animal science expert
  • Inventor of humane livestock equipment
  • Best-selling author and prominent autism advocate

Stephen Shore

  • Professor, author, and public speaker
  • Specializes in supports across the lifespan
  • International autism consultant

John Elder Robison

  • Bestselling memoirist
  • Neurodiversity scholar
  • Public speaker and autism advocate

Dan Aykroyd

  • Beloved comedic actor
  • Also a musician, producer, and entrepreneur
  • Discusses his Asperger’s publicly

Daryl Hannah

  • Acclaimed film and TV actor
  • Advocates for environmental causes
  • Open about her autism diagnosis

Autistic self-advocates like these teach us that autism is a difference, not a deficiency. Their examples can inspire positive change across all life stages.

Conclusion: Moving Towards Inclusion

While autism is considered a childhood condition, supporting autistic individuals extends across the lifespan. By understanding common challenges and embracing unique strengths, more inclusive communities become possible.

Progress still remains, but the future looks brighter. With mentorship from autistic voices like Temple Grandin and Stephen Shore, we move closer to a world that celebrates neurodiversity.

The path ahead requires compassion, flexibility, and innovation from schools, employers, policy makers, and healthcare providers. But by working together, we can make full inclusion a reality.

Are you an autistic adult or family member seeking resources? Jade ABA Therapy provides compassionate, evidence-based autism treatment in Maryland. Our team helps autistic individuals build life skills for lifelong success. Get in touch today at (410) 616-0901 to get started. With the right supports, your child can thrive now and into adulthood.


Murphy, C. M., Wilson, C. E., Robertson, D. M., Ecker, C., Anagnostou, E., Hammond, N., McAlonan, G., Spain, D., Lai, M. C., Bloy, S., Achard, S., Rankin, J., & Russell, A. J. (2016). Autism spectrum disorder in adults: diagnosis, management, and health services development. Neuropsychiatric disease and treatment, 12, 1669–1686.

Medavarapu, S., Marella, L. L., Sangem, A., & Kairam, R. (2019). Where is the evidence? A narrative literature review of the treatment modalities for autism spectrum disorders. Cureus, 11(1), e3901.

Huang, Y., Arnold, S. R., Foley, K. R., Trollor, J. N. (2020). Diagnosis of autism in adulthood: a scoping review. Autism, 24(6), 1311–1327.

Dietz, P. M., Rose, C. E., McArthur, D., & Maenner, M. (2020). National and State Estimates of Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 50(12), 4258–4266.

Posar, A., & Visconti, P. (2018). Sensory abnormalities in children with autism spectrum disorder. Jornal de pediatria, 94(4), 342–350.

Autism Research Institute. (n.d.). Executive Function and Autism.

Autism Speaks. (n.d). Life Skills and Autism.

Dijkhuis, R. R., Ziermans, T. B., Van Rijn, S., Staal, W. G., & Swaab, H. (2017). Self-regulation and quality of life in high-functioning young adults with autism. Autism, 21(7), 896–906.

Brignell, A., Chenausky, K. V., Song, H., Zhu, J., Suo, C., & Morgan, A. T. (2018). Communication interventions for autism spectrum disorder in minimally verbal children. The Cochrane database of systematic reviews, 11(11), CD012324.

Fitzpatrick, S. E., Srivorakiat, L., Wink, L. K., Pedapati, E. V., & Erickson, C. A. (2016). Aggression in autism spectrum disorder: presentation and treatment options. Neuropsychiatric disease and treatment, 12, 1525–1538.

Lubin, A., & Feeley, C. (2016). Transportation issues of adults on the autism spectrum: findings from focus group discussions. Transportation research record, 2542(1), 11-8.

Anderson, K. A., Shattuck, P. T., Cooper, B. P., Roux, A. M., & Wagner, M. (2014). Prevalence and correlates of postsecondary residential status among young adults with an autism spectrum disorder. Autism, 18(5), 562–570.

Russell, G., Kapp, S. K., Elliott, D., Elphick, C., Gwernan-Jones, R., & Owens, C. (2019). Mapping the Autistic Advantage from the Accounts of Adults Diagnosed with Autism: A Qualitative Study. Autism in adulthood, 1(2), 124–133.

Nicolaidis, C., Kripke, C.C., & Raymaker, D. (2014). Primary care for adults on the autism spectrum. The Medical clinics of North America, 98(5), 1169–1191.

U.S. Department of Education. (n.d.). About IDEA.

Scroll to Top