Seeking Help
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Seeking Help

An autistic person who lives in his community has made a precarious adjustment, and will need guidance when he finds himself in stressful situations. Not surprisingly, he is less inclined to seek help at such times than other troubled individuals. Help-seeking is a social behavior which requires the following abilities in the seeker:

  1. He should be able to distinguish between minor frustrations and potentially serious situations
  2. He must know what agencies exist to help with each type of problem, where they are located, and how much they should be approached.
  3. He should be able to explain the nature of his trouble, answer questions with some understanding of their purpose, and avoid digressing or leaving out important details.
  4. He should have a realistic idea of what help is available, its cost to him, and the time required.
  5. He must be able to cooperate to bring about change.
No one of these requirements comes easily to an autistic person. Initially, a crisis for an autistic child may not be a psychiatric one, but if he does not know how to seek help, an autistic adult should have at least one “advocate” in his community who can, if necessary, interpret situations for him or explain his puzzling behaviors to other people. This friend-in-need could be his doctor, social worker, employer, minister, sibling, or longtime acquaintance.

Some autistic adults keep close ties with their families and turn to them for guidance. Parents are often uniquely qualified to help because they understand the nuances of their own children’s reasoning. Yet, the longer this relationship continues, the more uneasy they become, if only because they know they can’t go on forever. Parents and adult sons feel stigmatized in the public mind if they continue to live together even when this is eventually that the parents may be viewed as exploiters for keeping him on hand to wait on them in their old age. There is great social pressure to move an adult out of his family home soon after he reaches legal adulthood, even if he is unprepared to cope with independence.

Not uncommonly, an autistic adult adopts as his advocate some understanding person who helped him over an earlier crisis. One mother told of a social worker who has stood by her son for many years. “We have included him in our will,” she said, revealing how difficult it is to find a person with the necessary understanding and patience to serve as an advocate for an autistic adult.

There is no simple solution to the dilemma of providing crisis services for individuals who do not know when or how to seek help by themselves. Some communities have volunteer “Citizen Advocates”* administered by the agency which serves retarded citizens. This movement may do its greatest service by publicizing an urgent need, so that many people who already know mentally handicapped individuals will take the time to befriend them. Sponsored friendship can be awkward, although for a person in need it is better than no friend at all. There may seldom be genuine rapport between a volunteer advocate and a mentally handicapped adult, each of whom enters the relationship with experiences different from reality. Retarded individuals with social instincts on a par with their intelligence are easier to befriend than the autistic, who can be brilliant in some ways, but unable to interact with understanding of another person’s position. Possibly, when there are better adolescents, so that they can learn how to request and accept help when they are worried or puzzled by the ambiguities of community life.


*Citizen Advocacy, and protective services for the Impaired and Handicapped. Edited by Wolf Wolfensberger and Helen Zauka, 1973 National Institute on Mental Retardation, Canada.

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