Autism and the age gap
I want to talk to you about something I personally struggle with on a daily basis. I guess that’s kinda vague because, let’s be honest, I struggle with quite a bit. I’ll be a bit more specific and focus on just one issue in particular. Let me start by asking you a question. Do you think that there can be a difference between a persons chronological age (think number of birthdays) and their emotional age? Anyone? If you said answered “yes” give yourself a shiny gold star because you are 100% correct.
I refer to the difference between chronological and emotional age as the age gap. Many kids with Autism will present with this age gap as part of the developmental delay. The Lost and Tired family is no exception. For the purposes of this post I will be sharing Gavin’s story because his is a really good example and it’s a situation that I personally struggle with.
What is the age gap?
Gavin is 11 years old. He has had 11 birthdays so far in his young life. However, while Gavin has experienced 11 birthday’s he remains about 3 or 4 years old emotionally. What does this mean and how does this happen? Basically, this means that while Gavin is physically a pre-teen pubescent young man, deep down inside is still a toddler. As to why or how this happened, I don’t have the answer. My best guess is that this is simply a part of the developmental delay that is a huge part of Autism.
Here’s a really bad analogy but I think it makes the most sense. Gavin is in many ways like the Incredible Hulk. Remember, I did say it was a bad analogy but it will make sense.
Gavin is very intelligent and many times acts like he is 11 years old. However, when he get’s anxious, upset, angry, scared or even overly excited, he responds to these situations as though he is 3 or 4 years old. This is why I choose the Incredible Hulk analogy for this. It’s a crude example but when Bruce Banner gets angry or upset he turns into the Incredible Hulk. For Gavin in particular, this is where many of the meltdowns come into play. In other words, Gavin is, in many ways, a toddler trapped inside the body of an 11 year old boy. Gavin’s the poster child for “Looks can be deceiving“.
Keep in mind that every child and adult with Autism is different and unique. Not every person will present with the exact same scenario but many do. The age gap is something many people are not aware of but should be.
Looks can be deceiving, especially with the age gap
We have all heard the phrases, looks can be deceiving or never judge a book by its cover. Those phrases are absolutely a perfect fit for this situation. One of the reasons I wanted to share this is because of my personal struggle with this very challenging situation. When Gavin is in the middle of a meltdown, I often struggle to see the situation for what it really is. While I firmly believe that Gavin has at least some control over these meltdowns, there is much more going on beneath the surface then meets the eye.
I often forget that Gavin is quite prone to these behaviors because he is, in fact, only 3 or 4 years old emotionally. When I see Gavin having a meltdown, many assumptions are made because he’s 11 years old and should know better. However, if I could truly see Gavin for who he is at that very moment, I would see a much different picture. The picture I would see is that of a very small child, overwhelmed, upset, angry or scared. You would see that same small child responding in the only way they know how to at that age. This is where I struggle. I all to often forget who Gavin really is or rather how old he really is on the inside. In all honesty, it’s very difficult to remember this because Gavin is physically much bigger and stronger then the 3 or 4 year old little boy he is on the inside.
If who Gavin is on the outside matched who he is on the inside then the behavior wouldn’t appear so inappropriate. The problem, at least for us, is that Gavin is much bigger and stronger than a 3 or 4 year old little boy is. When he has a meltdown they are very dangerous. He can do quite a bit of damage to his environment during one of these meltdowns as well. I have to concern myself with the safety issues at that moment and often times the root cause is overlooked.
I know that I have to ensure everyone’s safety during on of these meltdowns but I don’ always know how to actually handle Gavin. I mean, how accountable for his actions is he? If he’s 3 or 4 years old on the inside and 11 years old on the outside how do I handle discipline? This is something we have struggled with for years. No one has the answers for us and Gavin certainly didn’t come with a set of instructions. Basically, Gavin and Emmett are on the same level as far as emotional maturity is concerned. Can we honestly hold Gavin any more accountable then we would Emmett? If Emmett were melting down or having a temper tantrum, no one would think that was out of place because they see a 3 year old little boy. However, because Gavin is much older on the outside then he is on the inside and is in truth much more dangerous, everything is different.
The age gap complicates many things that are already complicated enough on their own. In Gavin’s case the age gap is pretty wide and doesn’t appear to be closing. In fact, with each passing year the age gap is widening. This is largely the reason why we are looking at childhood disintegrative disorder. Gavin’s situation is not typical but it very clearly illustrates a very common issue with ASD kids. While most Autistic children won’t have such a dramatic difference between their chronological age and their emotional age, the age gap can be present none the less.
We as parents, must keep these things in mind. I know it’s very difficult to do much of the time, especially in the heat of the moment. However, if we are to be fair and understanding, we must take this age gap into account, if indeed it is present.
Your psychologist, psychiatrist or developmental neurologist may be able to help you identify whether or not the age gap is present and what the ages are. This knowledge can help you to better understand your child’s behavior.
Until I saw this blog I have been a wreck, my 11 year old son cries and breaks down anytime my husband or I or any of his siblings travel, he hides behind a door and cries and I don't know how to deal with him, does anyone have some coping tactics to give me, I need help please
Hi, my son is 10 years old and Doctors say emotionally around 5-6 yrs of age. Our issue is with him not understanding age differences and strengths between him and say , a 4 year old we worry that in a daycare setting the younger ones could get hurt when he gets angry. Has anyone had this issue?? My husband and I are trying so very hard to help him understand to keep his hands to himself and do not act out physically or yell and scream at anyone, but especially these younger kiddo's. We have him in ABA therapy and OT, but nothing has seemed to help. When he gets angry, he does not seem to have the capability to stop and rationalize his thoughts and feelings,etc. I refuse to just accept that behavior and not try and continue to try helping him so that he may grow into a somewhat "normal" functioning adult. I very much dislike using the word "normal", because I dont believe any of us really are. But in this case there is no other word. If anyone has any suggestions or advise I would love to hear it. If not, thanks for listening/reading.
Love this post by the way. : o )
I was just wondering today what it would be like to actually BE my chronological age. Like, what does 29 feel like to a normal person? Sometimes it does feel like I'm mentally about two-thirds of my actual age. But even that doesn't really capture all the facets of the situation–in some ways my life experience totally outstrips my age. In some ways I've been MORE mature, and definitely had to be more mentally resourceful, than other people my age, about since I was a teenager. Mostly it feels like I don't really have an age at all. I was never young in the same say that other kids were (my father even admitted that I was never foolish in my youth), and now I can tell that I'm not getting older the way other people my age are. I've always felt a little un-moored in how time itself seems to work for normal people.
You know that's a great question. That's a great question I don't have the answer to. I'll be 33 in two weeks and I feel like I'm twice that age. I was always very mature for my age and like you was never foolish in my youth. I'm trying to feel younger but it never seems to work. Gavin many times acts much, much younger then he really is but Elliott on the other hand is 5 years old and wise beyond his years. Both have Aspergers but are completely different, unique and wonderful children.
This was a great comment and you really got me thinking. More power to you. Thanks alot 🙂
And it's one of those things that I can't even ask anyone…there are things about the mysteries of neurotypical life that I can just ask a friend, like "what do people really mean when they say [whatever]?" or "Do you really not hear that?" But "what does it feel like to actually be emotionally anchored to your external age?" or "is it nice to take for granted that the flow of time works the same way for you as for the rest of humanity?" The people who would know what I'm talking about wouldn't know the answer, and the people who actually have the experience wouldn't begin to know what I'm talking about….
Oh well. Thanks again for a good post.
I totally hear you! Our child is 9 chronologically, but for all intents and purposes, he is a two year old and does not seem to be progressing from that point. His neuropsychologist even placed some of his developmental levels at a 9 months! It is very hard to remember that although he is 9 year olds and 80 pounds, he doesn't know how to handle and regulate his emotions because of his emotional maturity. Our 7 year old daughter is really starting to notice that there are different sets of rules for her and for her brother. We have tried to explain to her that her brother's brain does not work the same way that her brain works. That's another aspect of his horrible disease in and of itself!
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We are in a similar boat. It difficult to get people to understand. But I think it\’s important that people do. It helps to better understand some of the behavioral issues. Thank you for sharing that.
Most of the experts we've spoken to or heard talk about Autism, especially Asperger's, say that you should assume the child is socially and emotionally about 2/3 of their chronological age (some will be less, some more). So my 8 year old frequently acts more like a 5 year old and I just try to remember that when dealing with his behavior.
Thank you for sharing that. I hadn\’t heard that but it\’s a good rule of thumb. It makes alot of sense and in most cases is probably pretty accurate + /-