Life Advice from a Young Adult on the Spectrum
A Conversation with Patrick…
Patrick, now 27, is a kind, candid, and wickedly funny young man. I counseled him beginning in his teens, and was later able to share his story in The Loving Push, which I coauthored with Dr. Temple Grandin.
Patrick and I spoke recently by phone. We hope some of his story might be useful to you.
Patrick was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as a child. As a toddler, he was unable to distinguish himself from objects, and had screaming fits from sensory overload.
He was also obsessed with cartoons and commercials. No one realized that while watching them, he was memorizing and consciously practicing how to precisely place his tongue and constrict his throat to mimic his beloved characters.
After high school, Patrick floundered, hating, and then quitting college. He became depressed, and retreated to his bedroom and endless video games.
Then one day, kidding around in the car with his aunt Mary, he spontaneously burst into “Maria,” the song from West Side Story. His aunt was stunned— his voice was strong, pitch perfect, and beautiful!
A new and often challenging journey began that day. Patrick tried voice lessons (he didn’t much like them), an improv class (ho-hum), and voice over coaching (which he eventually loved).
Fast forward to today: Patrick is back in voice classes, submits voice over auditions to agents, and has booked a few paying jobs.
Dr. Moore (DM): I’d love to talk about your journey and hear about any strategies that helped you. How about school?
Patrick: I did NOT like my time in school! I was bullied. In retrospect I would tell parents to tell their kid to avoid reacting to the bullies. Do not become a spectacle— it is just for their amusement.
I would also tell parents to inform the school of their child’s condition ASAP to avoid complications. The teachers and staff might not recognize what your child needs, so it’s better if they have the information beforehand.
DM: Let’s talk about interacting with others. I remember when you wouldn’t join gatherings, you’d sort of hide in your room. And you didn’t participate in day-to-day household tasks.
Patrick: I used to hide away. I’m still not a very big socializer. My advice for being around people is to first watch and listen. See how others do something before you try it.
I think it is useful to have dinner together as a family. I know a lot of families don’t do that anymore. But it will get you more prepared by practicing talking to family members.
DM: What strategies are you using these days to deal with difficult feelings?
Patrick: Mostly identification. It’s hard when emotions come up quickly, but if they come up slower it helps to identify them and then take a deep breath. Then I can go over the situation in my head and see if it’s rational or not.
Belly breathing for more air helps. I deep breathe three times.
I’m still pretty closed minded, but definitely not as much as years ago. I still get depressed and that is the real problem. My depressive, negative thoughts are what give my anxious thoughts their power. Otherwise, the anxious thoughts wouldn’t have anything to hang onto, and they would just be deemed irrational.
DM: You put that really well! Do you have any thoughts about medication to help with depression or anxiety?
Patrick: I think you have to experiment because there are so many kinds. Pay attention to side effects. You need outside observation to determine if a medication is helping. A lot of times there aren’t drastic changes, but there are still important changes. I still feel it is annoying to take medication. I don’t like having to remember to take it every day.
DM: I’m interested in what it’s like for you now to try new things.
(Note from DM:) It’s been a struggle for Patrick to try new things and grow his confidence. He used to resist eating new foods, tackling household tasks, and learning to drive. But even after failing his first driving exam (due to nerves), and then swearing he’d never try again, he did and passed! He lives with his parents and now contributes to household chores, including cooking. He’s now quite willing to try new foods.
Patrick: I do best when someone explains step by step and when I have visuals. If
I don’t have visuals, it becomes very abstract and I’m not as sure of what I am doing.
Cooking is an example. If a parent wants to teach their child to cook, a good starting point is with what they like to eat. For me, it helps to gather all the containers and food and put it in front of me before I start. It takes more time but is a better guarantee that I won’t forget something later.
DM: You found a way to develop your special interests and talents into a vocation. Could you talk about how this happened and pass on any advice you have to parents?
Patrick: You have to let a child experiment with their skills and see if any are transferable. Like the voice acting I found totally by accident. I belted out “Maria” as a joke. I never paid much attention to my voice before I started voice acting. Your career path could depend on something you don’t even realize you are doing!
But that takes outside observation. In my case, it came from Aunt Mary. She liked my voice and took me to a singing class. I didn’t take to it. So then we tried something different. She found a voice over coach who kept telling me I could do this, so finally I thought, “maybe there is something to this.”
I resisted it at first. Maybe because it sounded like a fantasy career that only the extremely lucky can do. That kind of thinking can really hold you back!
DM: It’s so great to hear how much easier you are on yourself these days! That’s a really big change in perspective. Can you tell us what you are doing with your career these days?
Patrick: Right now I’m taking voice classes at a place in Sausalito.
(Note from DM): Sausalito is north of San Francisco; about one and a half to two hours from where Patrick lives. His Aunt Mary rides with him, but Patrick drives.
Patrick: The instructors there are sometimes agents. I’ve impressed some of them and now I have an agent. I booked a few jobs. I’m also working with an opera coach on breath control. And I had my first time in a professional voice booth.
DM: What was that like?
Patrick: It was pretty simple. It was rainy that day; I walked in, signed a confidentiality agreement, waited, and then went in. There was a director talking to me over a phone via a telephone patch.
I was a little nervous, but I’ve had practice taking direction before and figured if I did something they didn’t like, they would direct me out of it.
DM: What has been the hardest thing you’ve tried recently?
Patrick: We had an assignment at voice class where we were supposed to bring in a script to read that would show our versatility. I couldn’t find one, so Aunt Mary said to make up my own. I was really hesitant. I felt vulnerable, like I was taking a bunch of safety nets away. I was afraid of exposing myself and that others wouldn’t like it and then that impression would stick with that person.
DM: How would you like to talk to yourself in similar situations in the future?
Patrick: I would practice, and get used to the idea of doing it. Now I’m really glad I did it because the person in charge of class that day was an agent from LA and she really liked it. She said she would start giving me some auditions. And she did already—I got some a week or two ago. I finished one for a Build-a-Bot, and one for a hamster toy.
DM: Just two last questions Patrick. What is the biggest advice you would give to parents, and what advice would you give your younger self?
Patrick: I would tell parents “Don’t be afraid to push your kid to try new things.” Parents should assert that their child has to try something new. Don’t give the kid an option. But find something that’s not a long-term commitment. Don’t sign them up for summer band camp! Take them to a music store and let them try an instrument. But they have to try it at least a few times!
For myself, I’d say, “Keep playing with voices and don’t overreact so much in school. And try salmon as soon as humanely possible!”
Debra Moore, PhD, is a psychologist who, prior to retirement from active practice, worked extensively with children, teens, and adults on the autism spectrum. She coauthored The Loving Push: How Parents and Professionals Can Help Spectrum Kids Become Successful Adults (2016) with Dr. Temple Grandin. She contributed two chapters (one coauthored with Dr. Temple Grandin) to The Nine Degrees of Autism (2015) and wrote the chapter Internet and Gaming Addiction in Youth on the Autism Spectrum: A Particularly Vulnerable Population in Internet Addiction in Children and Adolescents: Risk Factors, Assessment, and Treatment (2017). She also facilitates the groups “Autism Spectrum Across the Lifespan,” and “Autism Spectrum HELPING HANDS Mentors” on LinkedIn.com.
This article was featured in Issue 68 – ASD Strategies in Action