Dear Dr. Barb,
My very bright, 19-year-old son with ASD is struggling and it is tearing the family apart. He started college last year but failed all his classes because he did not go to class. We were unaware of this until the end of the semester when he got his grades. He is now at home and is convinced that he can’t do anything. He stays home all day and plays games on the computer. He is not willing to do anything around the house to help. He is our oldest son and he is angry at his younger brother who is taking some college classes this year as a senior in high school and will be starting college next year.
My husband and I disagree on identifying the best strategy. I would like to insist that he either go back to school or find a job. I think that if he cannot help around the house, he should either pay rent or find somewhere else to live. My husband feels that our son is depressed and if we push him he might hurt himself. Our son insists that this is his house and that he has a right to live here and do anything he wants. He seems to believe that because we are his parents, we have to take care of him. When we mention any responsibilities he just says I don’t have to do that and if you make me I will kill myself. Please help!
Mother Held Hostage
Your family seems to have hit a “perfect storm” of behaviors that are common in young adults with ASD. Despite their intellect, many students with ASD have trouble with executive functioning, including planning and organizing. They also are often reluctant to admit any mistake and ask for help. It is likely that these things have played a role in your son’s school difficulties. Because those with ASD tend to all or nothing thinking, having failed in his first try at school, he may be telling himself that he will fail at everything and thus should not even try. His difficulty understanding social norms also may prevent him from seeing how the role between parents and children changes with age. He may want things to be the way they have always been. It is likely that he is struggling with both depression and anxiety.
However, it is not fair to him to allow him to get stuck in this negative pattern. I think that first, you and your husband need to agree on some rules and expectations for both of your children.This includes issues such as what you will contribute toward their education, under what circumstances they can continue to live at home (either paying room and board or for free), and what is expected of them at home. You can then discuss how this might look different for your older son, including perhaps part time school or work if that is what he can manage at this time. You can then have a family discussion in which you present the information to both boys. You can point out to your son with ASD that he may have some additional challenges and you are willing to help him come up with a reasonable plan for moving forward, but that you firmly believe that he is able to do more than he is doing now. It is important to state rules and consequences in advance and not react after the fact.
The biggest issue is what you will do if he refuses to cooperate. This is the time when families have to consider how far they are willing to push. You can start by not doing things for him that you currently are doing, ranging from doing his laundry to allowing him use of the car and the internet, so that he begins to understand that it is indeed your house and you make the rules. I also would offer to go with him to enroll in the community college or check out vocational rehabilitation services to look for a job. If your son does make any attempt to hurt himself you should call 911 or take him to the nearest emergency room.
Most adults with ASD report that they learn better from real consequences than from warnings or discussion. Your son needs to know that there are consequences to his actions. He also needs to know that you believe he is capable of success and that one failure does not mean that he will always fail.